Pacific Union College (PUC) is a four-year liberal arts college located in Angwin, a small town nestled deep within the gorgeous greenery of Napa County. It is also a Seventh Day Adventist campus, which, according to their website, "offers an excellent Christ-centered education." As it turns out, PUC also offers the opportunity to share in the experience of a religious community examining its history and roots in Red Books, a deeply moving and expertly executed theatrical treatment of the life and impact of Ellen G. White, a key founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and also founder of the school.
I didn't know much about Seventh Day Adventism before seeing Red Books. I might not even know it existed (14 million strong worldwide in 2006) if it weren't for a couple of friends with Adventist upbringings. One of them is Mei Ann Teo, a Bay Area theatre director whose past projects in San Francisco include Boy Gets Girl and last year's Porcelain. Mei Ann went to PUC, and is now their Resident Artist. She had mentioned a project she was doing there about Seventh Day Adventism, that was taking its cues and format from The Laramie Project, drawing on over 200 interviews with members of the Seventh Day Adventist community.
Like The Laramie Project, Red Books takes on controversial matter in a documentary theater format, attempting to present an entire community's reactions to a heated topic through a series of short, punctuated scenes. In this case, the controversy relates to the role of influential founder Ellen G. White, and the atmosphere of suppression and fear that grew up around discussion of her life and works. White's prophetic ministry and writings, particularly her focus on education, health and vegetarianism, have had a huge impact on how the religion has developed and grown -- despite accusations of mental illness and plagiarism among other concerns. Red Books spans the four generations of Adventism and takes its climax from an event it calls "The Crash" -- a period of suppression of scholarly exploration of White's life and works in the seventies that has had a lasting impact on the religion.
In journalism, one of the most difficult issues faced on a daily basis is how to present as unbiased an account as possible, even when presenting issues that are inherently matters of opinion. The most common solution is to present both sides of the issue -- as if there are only two sides to any given issue. Red Books achieves a communal truth through the willingness of interviewees to be honest and open. The sensitive writing does not judge individual characters for their opinions, but instead highlights the subtleties that lie behind the overt history. Including the process of writing the play as a major theme also heightens the impact of the story, as it gently points out parallels between "The Crash" and the current atmosphere, and offers the actors a way to include their opinions without having to indirectly comment through their characters.
The play was presented in mini-scenes that flowed quickly from one to another, with a minimal set of two large movable red books (White's 100+ published works were bound in red) and an innovative backdrop of laundry lines with clothing props that were gradually used up throughout the show. Music was also a powerful force throughout the show, provided by the actors humming and singing mostly traditional hymns central to their community.
The acting was natural and delivered with conviction -- one actor mentioned that it was easier to be immersed in this production, because he understood the themes and people from his upbringing. Although not all of the numerous characters in the show are named, many of the key figures from "The Crash" are, and hearing their words spoken by the actors was all the more electric for knowing that many of the audience members present actually lived through that time and knew -- and in some cases were -- the characters in the play. In fact, one of the actors in the play, Greg Schneider, is a professor at PUC and plays himself and his wife in the production. Schneider was at the University of Chicago in the seventies, and spoke about the impact of several books published during that time. Another key character in the play was his student, and is now the Chair of his department at PUC.
The atmosphere in the theatre during and after the production was intense and emotionally charged; it seemed like everyone in the room was aware they were witnessing and participating in an important moment in their history. The entire audience stayed for a post-play Q&A session with the cast and crew. I was struck by the earnestness in the room, and the willingness to ask and answer difficult questions. Audience members asked about not only the process of making the play, but about major themes and also public reaction they had received so far. The father of one of the actors was candid about his worry for his daughter, and his warning that it might get her in trouble. He finished by saying that the production brought more variety of perspectives than he had expected, and that he didn't think it was going to create as much uproar in the community as he had originally suspected. Through the Q&A, I also learned that one audience member and interviewee (and representative of the Ellen G. White estate) had walked out on opening night.
Red Books is without a doubt a seminal moment in the history of Seventh Day Adventism, but I shared fully in the experience that night, and left with profound respect for the people I saw -- the people who had the courage to ask questions both during "The Crash" and now.
Red Books is extending its run through the first week in April (April 3,4,5 and 7). Admission is free of charge; donations highly encouraged. For more information, and reservations email redbooksEGW@gmail.com.