Dangerous inclusivity in Silk Road Rising’s Paulus
I went to Silk Road Rising’s world premiere of Israeli Playwright Motti Lerner’s Paulus, translated by Hillel Halkin and directed by Jimmy McDermott, excited to see the critically acclaimed company tackle the enigmatic and controversial figure Paulus, otherwise known as Saul of Tarsus or the Apostle Paul. Jesus and his apostles were observant Jews; Paul, born Jewish, was the early thinker of Christianity who opened up the teachings of Jesus to Gentiles, essentially enabling a split between Judaism and Christianity. Paul taught that belief in Jesus’ teachings and his monotheistic God were more important to redemption than adherence to the Jewish laws. He’s the reason why observant Christians can eat pork and aren’t circumcised as part of religious practice.
Paul is a controversial figure, and Silk Road’s extensive dramaturgical materials paint a compelling picture. I arrived early to the theater and sat for almost a full half-hour enthralled by a thorough collection of essays, interviews, and definitions of terms in both my program and my press pack. Paul has been characterized in many ways through the history of Christianity, and from the historic and biblical record, it is difficult to tell if he was attempting to invent a new religion or preaching a radical new form of Judaism. He, like Jesus, came into conflict with the Jewish religious establishment of his time, and Paulus looks to examine this conflict.
Paulus’s core message of inclusivity—that ethnic origins shouldn’t matter—resonates in a contemporary American context valuing multiculturalism. Of course salvation should not be exclusively reserved for just one ethnic group. Of course everyone should be able to participate in a (now-mainstream) monotheistic belief structure, regardless of ethnic origins. Of course Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Jews should be treated as equal.
I can see how this message might be controversial in an Israeli context. Jewish ethnic origin can be closely tied to nationality. An American-born, secular Jew like me could be granted full Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, while Palestinians whose families have lived in the region for centuries are treated as second-class citizens. Paulus’s discussion of ethnic inclusivity operates under different assumptions in the United States than it does in Lerner’s native Israel. However, Silk Road Rising’s production is in Chicago, so its audience is saturated in American discourses of inclusivity. In addition Silk Road Rising’s mission is explicitly dedicated to advancing a polycultural worldview, telling stories through Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses that engage Chicago audiences in experiences of cultural intersection. I would expect their audiences to be particularly invested in Paulus’s message of inclusivity.
Perhaps because Paulus’s message is so obvious to the play’s audience, the production could have made it more clear how dangerous this message would have been to the established religious and political order in first century Rome and Jerusalem. The authorities opposing Paulus seem like petty despots, hanging on to close-minded ideas for no reason but to maintain their own power. The complexity of the landscape articulated in the dramaturgical materials isn’t as thoroughly explored as I might have hoped.
Perhaps because Paulus’s message is so obvious to the play’s audience, the production could have made it more clear how dangerous this message would have been to the established religious and political order in first century Rome and Jerusalem.
The plot follows Paulus as he comes into conflict with established Temple and civic authorities while trying to bring Christianity to the masses. Lerner’s play, originally written in Hebrew, is packed with scenes that run thick with philosophical speeches, and I had trouble following and differentiating characters’ points of view through the text as many characters speak and move at the same tempo. An ensemble of veteran Chicago actors including Daniel Cantor as Paulus, Bill McGough as the head of the Temple and D’Wayne Taylor as a Roman leader do their best to try to make their points with these unwieldy speeches. Paulus’s servant Trophimos (Anthony DiNicola) injects some much-needed humor and provides some contrast, which is much appreciated. He is the voice of common sense and self-preservation, which Paulus (predictably) does not follow.
Lerner’s text is interested in the psychology of a Paulus scarred from his experience witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion. Throughout the play, Paulus encounters the repeated images of an aged Jesus and a young Nero, the angel and devil on his shoulders. Roman Emperor Nero, a muscular and charismatic Glenn Stanton, was always interesting to watch and seemed to be calling Paulus to him in Rome, where Paulus will ultimately die. Nero is an enigmatic figure, and other audience members may interpret him differently than I do, but I read him as representing Paulus’s death wish—his need to die like his beloved Jesus on the cross.
Torrey Hanson’s sixty two year-old Jesus, who was reborn, appeared to Paulus on the road to Damascus, and in Paulus’s head continues to age at a natural rate. At times, Jesus seems to be arguing for Paulus to retain salvation for the Jews—the same argument made by the leader of the Jewish religious establishment—but I’m not totally certain. Hanson makes heroic efforts wrestling with cumbersome speeches, but I ultimately just can’t figure out what Jesus wanted in this play. However, this lack of clarity may be intentional on Lerner’s part. It may be that Lerner does not want Paulus or the audience to know for certain what Jesus wanted, for this mystery lies at the heart of contemporary Christianity. Paulus has to interpret mixed signals and fragments of old stories in relation to his own moral compass to determine his course of action. He ultimately sacrifices himself, but that is his choice, rather than the will of an all-knowing or all-powerful divine.