Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Laramie Meets Good Friday

On Good Friday this year I did something different. Well, not different for Ann the actor, but different for Ann the minister. Traditionally on Good Friday (five days after Palm Sunday and two days before Easter), I attend a church service commemorating the killing of Christ.

Fun times at Ridgemont High.

Good Friday is the darkest service of the entire church calendar, and “good” the most ironic word in Christian liturgy. By the end of the service, all the lights have been extinguished, all the relics in the sanctuary (the bible, pulpit, communion table, etc.) covered in black cloth, and the nail in our trembling hands as we trepidatiously leave the sacred space is dropped into a metal bucket, every clink of every nail from every participant reminiscent of a hammer upon the nails pounded through Christ’s skin, veins, muscle, tendons and bones and into the wooden planks behind it.

It’s dark, okay? Dark.

But important.

Like the eastern philosophy of the ying and the yang, Christian tradition teaches us that without acknowledging that each of us possesses within us the capacity for deepest darkness, we cannot accept that we are at the same time created by, for, and with the brightest light. In other words, those of us waving the welcome palms on Sunday are the same people crying “Crucify!” on Friday. And the same people fleeing the scene of the "crime" on Friday are the same being sought out by the risen Christ on Sunday.

Without death, there is no resurrection.

The baptisms we watch on Easter remind us that unless we die to ourselves, we cannot live resurrected into new life.

That’s Good Friday in a nutshell. It’s an important holiday that I traditionally participate in.

This year though, I didn’t go to church for Good Friday service... I went to the theater.

Having received an invitation to attend Zachary Scott Theater with two of my best friends, I only felt a slight pang of guilt in missing the Good Friday service I had planned to go to. A free $66 ticket to one of the strongest regional theaters in town? Okay, I’ll take it.

Sorry, God. Next year, I guess.

But as I sat in the dark theater watching the cast and crew of The Laramie Project retell the stories of the residents of Wyoming’s “hometown” who reflect on the brutal torture and murder of a college student there, I wondered if in going to the theater, I hadn’t sacrificed diving into Good Friday after all.

In case you’re pre-pubescent (in which case, I’m not sure why you’re reading my blog anyway) and weren’t alive twelve years ago, here’s a quick overview of Matthew’s story and how the Laramie project came to be the art it is now.

“October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a college student at the University of Wyoming, was kidnapped, beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Five weeks later, Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, and over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play The Laramie Project, a chronicle of the life of the town of Laramie in the year after the murder.

The torture and murder of Matthew Shepard became a watershed historical moment in America that highlighted many of the fault lines in our culture. There was a polarization that took place in the National conversation that led to a) an oversimplification of vastly complicated ideas like prejudice, class issues, gender issues, and b) many bigoted people being allowed to take center stage, as the media seemed to find it necessary to find two sides in a debate about homosexuality. The goal of Tectonic was to find the story of the people of Laramie in their own words. But in doing so, it managed to capture something profoundly American, something about social injustices, about beliefs, about idiosyncrasies. It told the story of one American town at the end of the millennium. But in doing so, it talked about America as a whole.”[1]

The cast & creative team at Zach Scott presented a powerful performance, and I could easily write a (positive) review about the staging, lighting, acting and the vision of the show. Hell, they made it rain onstage at the end of Act 2. It was remarkable. But this is a post about Good Friday and how maybe going to church and going to the theater aren’t too far apart when you’re watching The Laramie Project.

In embarking on this project, Tectonic Theater Project asked themselves, “What role can a theater artists play in the national dialogue about current events?”

It’s an important question that not only theater artists but also Christian artists have been asking themselves for centuries.

What role do I as a Christian play in the national dialogue concerning the capital punishment of an unconvicted criminal guilty of only being himself, of telling those around him that love wins, that God wins, that hope wins, and that it’s time to view the world through such lenses of faith? What role do I as a Christian play in the national dialogue concerning the capital punishment of the self-proclaimed Son of God?

Four followers of Christ (they weren’t called Christians back then) decided to pick up the pen. And we found the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Members of the Tectonic Theater Project write that the “Laramie project has prompted dialogue, discussion and debate about a wide variety of issues and continues to transform the lives of those who participate as actors and those who sit in the audience.”[2]

I would argue that Good Friday did the same things to residents of the middle east over 2000 years ago, and the story of Good Friday continues to do so today.

The Laramie Project is a story about a boy on the fringe of society. A gay teenager. He was beaten without provocation and hung on a fence post to wait out his injuries and die. As fence post after fence post was rolled onstage during Zach Scott’s production that Good Friday, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the posts upon which Christ was left alone to die.

Now, Matthew Shepherd is not God. Neither is he a Christ-figure archetype in this piece of literature. He wasn’t even a great moral teacher or a philosopher or revolutionary. But Matthew Shepherd was brutally murdered by people who were probably afraid of him and afraid of what he represented.

And in that regard, so was Christ. Matthew Shepherd’s story that was re-told to me on Good Friday by the good actors onstage reminds me that not much has changed in 2000 years. The residents’ stories filled me with the dread of Good Friday when I realized that a civilized, enlightened people who can create NASA, wind farms, Nintendo, caramel frappachinos, the Bill of Rights, memory foam, the internet and iPhones are the same people who can brutally beat a boy with the butt of a gun, rope him to a fence post, and leave him to die, mutilated and alone.

In their first interview, some six years after their convictions, the Shephard’s killers denied that murdering Matthew was a hate-crime fueled by homophobia. Rather, they said, “money and drugs motivated their actions.”[3] My feelings on that confession are irrelevant. The fact remains that if we can kill an unsuspecting college kid, we can sure as hell kill God. If a nice, well-mannered, studious, gay boy can offend our senses, how much more will a man who tells us to clothe the sick, feed the hungry, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, visit those in prison…

And yet, many of us (sometimes especially) Christians choose to completely ignore the admonitions of Christ about other-worldly living and cling to "the cross" and "salvation" and "heaven" and other esoteric themes that seem to deport us from living incarnationally, resurrected, transformed lives every day. We just live and let live. Our religion is private, it’s our own - or even worse, we allow politicians to define it, and we join the masses pushing it onto other people.

Moisés Kaufman, leader of the Tectonic Theater writes, “Even in some of the western literature, you know, it’s live and let live. That is such crap. I tell my friends that--even my gay friends bring it up sometimes. I'm like, ‘That is crap, you know?’ I mean, basically what it boils down to: If I don't tell you I'm a fag, you won't beat the crap out of me. I mean, what's so great about that? That's a great philosophy?”

It’s not. It’s not a great philosophy.

And one of the many things Good Friday and Easter morning teaches us is that from ashes we have come and to ashes we will return. But it also teaches us that during that time between the ashes, we have a million and one opportunities to embrace the hedonistic, selfish, fear-filled, greedy, sexist, racist, violent, vulgar culture that pervades our homes, schools, churches, cinemas, bookshelves and theaters, or we can embrace the call of Christ to live resurrected, love and light-filled lives.

We can put away the fence-posts and the guns and the nails and the need to silence everything that scares us, and remember what the doctor said who worked on both Shephard’s murderer and Matthew Shephard himself that night in the Emergency Room in Laramie, Wyoming. “Two days after that night in the ER, I found out the connection and I was very struck. They were two kids. They were both my patients, and they were two kids. I took care of both of them, of both their bodies. And for a brief moment, I wondered if this is what God feels like when he looks down at us… how we are all his kids… our bodies, our souls. And I felt a great deal of compassion for both of them.”

We are all God’s kids.

And while experiencing "church" at my local theater, I was reminded that while I may choose death on Friday, Easter is right around the corner. God can make good result from any evil. In the murder of a college kid in Wyoming, comes a work of art that is reproduced all around the globe. People are changed and communities are changed. From the execution of a cultural subversive comes a story told around the world, and people are changed and communities are changed.

And in the light (or rather darkness) of such hatred be it against a political revolutionary & religious rebel or against a gay guy who got picked up at a bar, I choose love. I choose to forgive myself for participating in a culture of violence and I choose to live resurrected in the truth that we are all children of God.

R.I.P. Matthew Shephard. May you already be swinging in the arms of God Almighty herself. She is the great healer. And as for Christ? He is risen!

He is risen, indeed.


Anonymous said...

Theatre is holy.

- Shiz

Anonymous said...

This blog is beautiful. My favorite college prof, in his first day of lectures for "History of Theater" told us that the development of the theater started and developed in the church. That comment came back to me as I prepared and conducted rehearsals for "Laramie" time after time. Without question, it was the most moving experience I ever had in the theater. During the two nights of read-thrus all actors and stage manager cried at least once. During the course of rehearsals, run and later reflection the experience made me a better teacher and developed in me a stronger passion for the victims. Thank you for the words of inspiration. Dad

Anonymous said...

Great blog Ann. I remember how poignant Laramie Project is and I remember the Good Friday service at FBC Austin as being extremely meaningful as well. But from the resulting blog I'd say you made a difficult but good choice! -Mom

Anonymous said...

Love this blog.