Preaching to the Unconverted

Some thoughts on San Francisco-based Mugwumpin’s The Great Big Also.

Prophetic movements are part of our marrow as Americans. We are the country of John Winthrop’s City upon the Hill, of Shakers and the Oneida Community, of the Amish and Mormons and Scientology and Christian Evangelicals. Here in the Bay Area, we’re the sometime home of Jim Jones, the current home of Harold Camping and of Café Gratitude, a vegan restaurant chain that got sued for pressuring its employees to join Landmark Education, which is also based here.

When I entered Z Space for Mugwumpin’s production of The Great Big Also (which closed March 24), about the tradition of prophetic movements in American history, I quickly recognized the kind of situation they were trying to create. The group, a physical theater ensemble, had outfitted the theater’s lobby to look like an eerily cheery rec room—the plaids and medium woods of midcentury middle America that evoke a platonic ideal of comfort. There is no official announcement to start the show. Instead, one of eight ensemble members (Madeline H.D. Brown, Stephanie DeMott, Joseph Estlack, Natalie Greene, Susannah Martin, Michael Mohammed, Wiley Naman Strasser, and Michelle Talgarow) ushers small groups inside, one group at a time. As you walk into the playing space, the guide welcomes you to “New Settlers” and explains that a “rift” is about to happen; he/she takes care to learn your names, exuding earnestness and friendliness, but without an ounce of humor. Then, the guide separates companions from one another and places each audience member in a tiny room in a giant Tyvek® maze (designed by Sean Riley). A few other strangers are or will be there, and you’re given instructions not to leave your cubby, but that you may sit down.

I spent a lot of my youth in the South, where religion, in addition to being a huge shaper of worldviews, is one of the only ways to hang out with your teenage friends. I remember being constantly invited to youth groups, teen nights, church camps, Bible studies, Christian rock concerts, and even a Billy Graham crusade. In some cases, there was a real evangelical component; your sixteen-year-old friend really wanted to save your soul. But in most cases, the impulse behind those invitations seemed to be something more universal: “please be like me.”

Their work consistently challenges audiences, getting them out of chairs and moving through spaces and also asking them to take in work that’s not centered on a clear narrative but rather on provocative images and ideas (a rarity in the Bay Area).

The setup at those events was always the same, and this is what Mugwumpin comments on so effectively with the opening of The Great Big Also: the concerted, artificial efforts to make someone feel welcome and comfortable, before embarking them on a deeply uncomfortable conversion experience.

Mugwumpin, which was established in 2004, develops its plays from themes, typically over the course of a year. Its last two shows have taken place outside theatres—This Is All I Need, about our relationship to possessions, was staged in a hotel room, while Future Motive Power, about the inventor Nikola Tesla and the relationship between scientific ideas and the business world, was in the basement of San Francisco’s Old Mint building (one of the few to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire). Their work consistently challenges audiences, getting them out of chairs and moving through spaces and also asking them to take in work that’s not centered on a clear narrative but rather on provocative images and ideas (a rarity in the Bay Area).

a woman looking up on stage
The Great Big Also. Photo by Pak Han.

This piece, which is directed by Christopher W. White, is challenging in a different way. It seeks to instill in its audiences the same discomfort the unconverted might feel attending a first religious service. From the moment we’re abandoned to our Tyvek cells, we’re full of questions: Where am I in the labyrinth and in relationship to the people I came here with? Should I talk to these new people? Can I really not leave this cell? Where is that voice coming from? Hey, other audience members are walking around now—should I, too?

We have the pioneer spirit of our ancestors, except our frontier is the spirit, the soul, the mind, the body, and we push that frontier ever closer to perfection.

The ensemble doesn’t give answers. They wander or scurry about, breathlessly describing the rift, iterating the same series of arm motions that have echoes of different world religions. You’re made to stew in the feeling of being an outsider, which can be exasperating, and it’s clearly meant to be. But this dynamic is crucial to setting up the final scene, which shows the New Settlers characters when they were like us: coming together for the first time, by luck or by destiny, in a field somewhere. They’re confused, excited, apprehensive. Some are there with a deep sense of purpose; others are just at the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time.) But as quickly as they come together, they radicalize: a disagreement between two leads to one character’s banishment before any of the others have a chance to make sense of what’s going on. These are schoolyard dynamics, “please be like me” moments legitimized by their spiritual context.

Here, the broad and deep influence of prophetic movements on outsiders becomes harrowingly clear. Even if most of us don’t run around preaching, “The End is Near!” or trying to convert everyone we know to our beliefs, we still get too attached to our mission statements or read only op-eds we already know we’ll agree with or keep silent when someone else is being treated unfairly. We see the influence of prophetic movements in our most mundane language, from advertising copy that promises a product will “change your life” to our obsession with self-help and self-actualization. In our constant quests to work harder or feel happier, aren’t we chasing our own messiahs? Is that when our world will end? When we’re finally perfect?

We have the pioneer spirit of our ancestors, except our frontier is the spirit, the soul, the mind, the body, and we push that frontier ever closer to perfection. We inevitably fail, as The Great Big Also’s characters fail. For them, the rift happens. Or does it? Do you feel it? The “rift,” or the second coming, or the first coming, or whatever you want to call it, Mugwumpin ultimately suggests, is the logical product of any intense association: it’s the moment when a group’s separation from the world becomes so complete that it can write its own reality. It’s our optimism, our belief that we can truly become the City upon a Hill, run amok. The show, then, is an urgent call for us to question our ideals and associations and to cultivate that other, neglected American quality: staunch individualism.

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