A Brief Parable: Young Jean Lee’s ‘Church’ at Crowded Fire

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“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”
– Jesus Christ, The Holy Bible, The Gospel According to Matthew (King James Version), Chapter 6, verse 5

I owe my career in copywriting to Young Jean Lee. Mind you, I’ve never met her, corresponded with her, or had her name on any letter of recommendation on my behalf. Still, it was my review of her Untitled Feminist Show on this very site that, along my affinity for the web series Vag Magazine, led to my first paid copywriting work nearly six years ago. (I detailed the whole story right here for Vag Magazine creator Leila Cohan Miccio in 2014.)

Though Young Jean Lee’s influence on my life was, at best, indirect, the influence of The Bible was a bit more direct… kinda. I grew up in the kind of house where church life was a bit of an abstract: we said a childlike grace before meals; we attended service on Easter (if that); no one could tell you if there was a Bible in the house. All of that changed when I was about 16. My younger brother began staying over a friend’s house regularly, which meant attending church with them on Sunday mornings. Soon he’d convinced my parents to do so, which meant I had to. Within a year, both my brother and my parents were baptized. Twenty-plus years later, guess who the one holdout continues to be?

Mind you, this had nothing to do with the people at the church, who remain some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. What’s more, I’d grown up around a great many Catholics whose spiritual influence lingers on me to this day. It wasn’t the teachings of Christ that I was against, but the way it was taught. My father – a lifelong bully who took to gaslighting me when he knew I was too big to get physical with – now made it his duty to constantly remind me that my life was headed nowhere unless I followed their supposedly holy path. Not only am I averse to these tactics, but – as shown with the quote at the top – I knew that this was against Christ’s specific teachings. A combination of outside influences (Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist) kept my resolve strong, whilst my first job kept me from ever having to go to church again.

And yet, I feel a connection to Christ and his church to this very day. That always seems to shock a lot of liberals and progressives, especially the White ones here in the Bay Area. The late Roger Ebert – who always defended science and evolution – was always assumed to be an Atheist or “secular Humanist”, but actually identified as Roman Catholic to his dying day. In fact, he once wrote, “I didn’t believe then, and don’t believe now, that it is easy to subscribe to the teachings of the church and not consider yourself a liberal.” That’s where my mind and heart are: my Progressive sensibilities all owe a great deal to that much-lauded Middle Eastern guy who preached tolerance, humility, and care for others – he didn’t give a damn about celebrating his birth in December or what Starbucks cups look like during the season.

That’s the mental and spiritual baggage I brought with me when I went to see Crowded Fire’s take on Lee’s Church.

There’s really no point in trying to recount the play’s plot since there really isn’t one. The set up is that the church’s service will today (tonight?) be presided over by four guest reverends (all the actors use their real names, save for Lawrence Redecker as “Rev. José”). They sermonize, they ask the audience for prayers, they sermonize more, they dance to a Chris Tomlin’s “Be Glorified” (a song catchier than I care to admit), a choir comes on stage, and that’s it.

No really, that’s it. There’s no ending, the show just stops. In fact, abrupt stoppages are a running theme in the show. Each character tells a series of anecdotes that all go on extended tangents, especially those of Rev. José. The show opens with him sermonizing about the futility of material possessions and the hypocrisy of those who do the bare minimum but consider themselves great people. Then the lights come up and we’ve moved on.

But when those sermons are delivered, they are engrossing. Rev. Nkechi asks The Lord to help her through her issues with “whining” about co-workers; Rev. Alison asks for help with her obsession with self-help books in light of her recent break-up; and so on and so forth. The sermons are as straightforward as pointing out that Jesus’ political beliefs (yes, he had those) are in stark contrast to those who currently profit from his name, to a long-winded parable about a “wealthy weakling” who, despite meeting some good people, appears to have learned nothing by the time his story has ended.

And perhaps that’s the point? This is only my second Lee show and the last was a performance art piece, so I can’t really say how knowledgeable I am of her greater repertoire. Still, Church is similar to Untitled Feminist Show in how seeks to open with the familiar trappings of its title, only to subvert audience expectations associated with the title. Perhaps seeking for an ending wrapped up in a bow in the very sort of thing Lee is trying to pull us away from. As I mentioned, many of the sermons directly chastise the audience for their preconceived notions about what it is to be a follower of Christ (even the mostly-leftist SF crowd with which I saw the show included some uncomfortable twitching at the constant ego-stripping).

Lee’s subversion of the popular perception of Christianity proves how necessary it is to have one’s beliefs challenged: someone secure in their faith would add their newly-gained knowledge to their system of beliefs; someone insecure would try to force someone to see it the way they do.

Speaking of seeing, I definitely dug the way director Mina Morita put everything together on stage. From the moment I entered, I recognized set designer Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s creation as the minimalist equivalent to the sort of large church I tended to stay away from. Cassie Barns’ lights shine down through the windows directly over the center-stage podium and the benches on either side. As the show progresses, subtle light changes of red to blue to purple go almost unnoticed, but are no less effective.

The space is used well for all the aforementioned sermons, the dance sequence (choreographed by Mark Allan Davis) featuring the three women reverends, as well as the choir who seem to appear spontaneously to close out the show. (Definitely beats the last time a show brought in a choir during The Events at Shotgun.) All the songs are to the credit of music director Min Kahng.

The cast are… adequate in their roles. I’ve only seen Nkechi Emeruwa and Alison Whismore perform before, but the recitation of dialogue often came off as straightforward line-reading. One of theatre’s origins was the church, so a religious leader has to be able to command a crowd. They don’t necessarily have to be a performer, but they certainly have to be a well-honed orator. Given the many twists of the material Lee wrote for them, none of the actors really made any of the stories their own.

At one hour, Church is certainly shorter than any service I’ve attended, but mercifully free of the “fire ‘n brimstone” mouth-foaming I saw at the worst services and street preachers. As someone who has never identified as a Christian, it seems odd to say that it reassured some of my best-held beliefs about the faith – especially since the purpose of the show seems to be dismantling popular ideas about believers.

The show is a bit uneven in its performances and (lack of) narrative, but as Marge Simpson once put it, “The Lord only asks for an hour each week.” This hour won’t kill you. On the contrary, it may just help you better appreciate your life.

GRADE:                                                                B

Church is scheduled to run until the 6th of October at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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