In 'CHURCH,' Crowded Fire Examines Assumptions of Faith

Ensemble in a state of ecstatic dance in Crowded Fire's production of Young Jean Lee's 'CHURCH.' (Hillary Goidell)

The genius of the plays of Young Jean Lee is that no matter what your personal opinion of a specific work is, it’s impossible to view one with indifference. It’s a rare playwright who can consider charged topics such as race (The Shipment), gender privilege (Straight White Men), and gender identity (Untitled Feminist Show) and reveal them as fully nuanced topics with fully nuanced humans on either side of their inevitable ideological divide. A line or scene that may have one audience member nodding along in recognition may provoke a recoil of shock in another, but whatever their reaction, neither will walk away without a strong opinion of the experience.

Lee's public meditation on Christian faith, CHURCH—currently produced by Crowded Fire, and directed by Mina Morita—is a brief slip of a play, clocking in at around 60 minutes. In concept, it portrays a much-abbreviated church service, one that's over long before the congregation-audience can begin wriggling uncomfortably in their seats or looking longingly at the exits. The basic elements of a Sunday morning churchgoing—liturgical music, earnest sermonizing, a call to prayer—form the foundation of the performance, and it’s clearly a structure familiar to many audience members, with several spontaneously murmuring amen and offering grace at the appropriate times.

The Reverend José (Lawrence Radecker) explains it all in 'CHURCH.' (Hillary Goidell)

Even for a staunch atheist with religion an integral but maddening part of the long-distant past, a condition I share with the playwright, there are moments in CHURCH that resonate on a personal level. The opening monologue, performed in the dark by Reverend José (Lawrence Radecker), is a pointed observation of the all-too human condition of self-importance and half-hearted armchair activism, directed seemingly specifically to the skeptics.

“You claim to care about suffering in the world and take luxurious pleasure in raging against the perpetrators of that suffering,” he admonishes. “But this masturbation-rage helps nothing and no one.” I doubt I’m the only non-believer in the room who feels personally singled out by this merciless deconstruction of the well-intentioned path to hell. And I can’t deny that it's a scripture I can subscribe to, right up until the moment he concludes with: “The day will come in which the Lord God Almighty comes in a shining blaze of glory, and the knowledge of your shallow heart will cause you to bite through your own tongue with grief,” and in a single sentence everything I might otherwise have agreed with is subverted by holy fear-mongering. It's a subversion not at all uncommon in Lee’s confrontational aesthetic.

Jordan María Don, Alison Whismore, and Nkechi Emeruwa as their Reverend selves in Crowded Fire's production of 'CHURCH.' (Hillary Goidell)

Other moments in the play appear tailored to resonate more with the true believers in the room, as a cluster of three female reverends join Radecker onstage, clad in playful floral prints (designed by Alice Ruiz), and offering the assembled congregation heartfelt smiles of welcome, as they take turns at the modest podium set centerstage. The Reverend Jordan (Jordan María Don) invites the audience to offer up prayer requests. The Reverend Nkechi (Nkechi Emeruwa) quotes from Hebrews as the audience murmurs along.

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But soon enough the play begins veering into the territory of the absurd. The Reverend Alison (Alison Whismore) smiles impishly as she confesses to all kinds of past perversions, her hair a beguiling Boticelli cascade. She's followed by Reverend José who delivers another sermon, the main purpose of which seems to be equating the language of the faithful to a passionate torrent of Baroque gibberish.

It’s at this point that my own objectivity gives way to the unmistakable sensation of being a bored 10-year-old surrounded by the righteous, surreptitiously kicking the pews and waiting for the final amens. Nothing about the Reverend José’s parable makes sense to me, presumably because it wasn’t written to make sense to anyone, and herein lies the subversive power of Lee’s piece. No communal experience, she points out, even among the mostly like-minded, is the same for each participant. Through the medium of Reverend Jose’s tortured metaphors of tuna, cactus, and poison, Lee reminds us that we all take different parts of the experience into ourselves and make of it what we will. That’s life, and art, and yes, even religion.

Nkechi Emeruwa in a state of ecstatic dance in Crowded Fire's 'CHURCH.' (Adam Tolbert)

More universally relatable are the moments where spoken expression gives way to music, as in a scene where the three female reverends begin to dance, and they abandon themselves to the physical ecstasy of it, eventually joined by Radecker. Without words they convey volumes of what it means to experience joy as communion. And when, in the final moments of the play, an entire choir invades the stage to raise their voices in song, their benign presence reminds the audience that music is one of the most enduring mediums both for worship and for creating secular community.

In short, Young Jean Lee’s CHURCH likely won't change the way you do or do not believe—but at some point, you may come to appreciate how closely your own practices and reactions resemble those from either end of the spectrum of faith.

'CHURCH' runs through Oct. 6 at the Potrero Stage. Details here.

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