Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: Hoi Polloi: Stories from an Invisible Town

Hoi Polloi is a theatre company in Cambridge. They are rarely here but I just came back from the latest Hugh Hughes show:  Stories from an Invisible Town.  It is the fourth Hugh Hughes show I have seen.  The character HH is an "emerging artist" from Anglesey, an island off the North Coast of Wales.  The artistic director of Hoi Polloi, a man named Shon Dale-Jones plays Hugh Hughes.  His first show was about his adolescent need to tear himself away from the island.  In the multi-media show, the island was torn away from its roots with the effort, and floated all around the world.  The second was about the death of his father intertwined with the apparent death of a pet rabbit.  The third show was about his best friend outing himself as a cross dresser.  This show is about Hugh's memory project, an art project, spurred by his mother moving out of the family home.  He interviews his siblings ceaselessly about the memories and the truths, and the layers of life they laid together, and they agree to be in a show.

It's a conceit.  When I saw the first show, I thought the artistic director had directed a person named Hugh Hughes.  No, he made a character Hugh Hughes to help him understand his life and his memories - the stories are broadly autobiographical.  The result  is a series of plays more true, more edifying, more ingenious, more full of love than almost anything than I have ever seen on a stage ever.  Yes, I am helplessly lapsing into superlatives and I agree with you that it is not very helpful.  I texted my friend F after the play that this man's genius and love know no bounds and that he may be the living person I most admire.  What I am feeling right now is what teenage girls feel for Justin Bieber and that is not very attractive, I know.  (I just realized that mentioning Juston Bieber has probably guaranteed that this will be my most popular blog post)  (Fine.)


I wonder how to tell you why I like it so much.  Believe me I have searched for answers.  Let me start by saying I like plays. And one of the things that my ex-Christian soul loves about plays is that I found at plays what I didn't  (mostly) find at church.   Edification.  A clue about what to do next, about how humans are.    Plays are for me this important ritual for uncovering truth.  have seen a lot of one man and one woman shows.  These are shows where people try to tell the audience the truth about their lives through a narrative, a story.  The truth most of these shows uncover is that the people performing do not really understand very much about their lives at all.  I mean, it's sad and embarrassing watching.  But Hugh Hughes has layers, and Hoi Pollloi  makes human emotions accessible by these layers.


Example.  In the memory project, Hugh asks his brother Derwyn to recreate, on film, the emotions he felt during a particularly traumatic evening when his father mocked him for losing his homing pigeons ("making the homing pigeons homeless").  So this guy who has a burger business out of a trailer gives it a shot.  We find out he agreed and we watch the film with Hugh and Derwyn.  It is funny because he yells NOOO!  and it is silly and fake.  He's a terrible actor.    He yells no and we can see by the way he yells no that he is so buttoned up, so inhibited that it is ridiculous.  It lacks, well, honesty.  He yells and yells and even unconvincingly throws things.  The audience laughs, the lights go up and Derwyn says to the audience, "You're laughing now.  I don't mind telling you, I was very upset when I did that. Very upset."


I mean, oh, my God, it's the knock out punch.   It's the theatrical equivalent of Douglas Adams' Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) Because when Derwyn turns and says that to the audience, we are instantly ashamed and empathetic.  His pain is real and his inability to express it is no joke.  And above all we believe it is real.  The action of watching a fake portrayal  with the portrayer (who is also an actor)  - it's like life requires us now to contrive greater and greater outrigging, greater scaffolding and conceits so that we can hold open the internal space necessary to have an emotion, or believe one in others.  


This is real post modern theater.  The best description of post-modernism I heard was in my postmodernism and the law class.  If "modernism" is saying "there's one thing I do know... and that is that I love you." then post modernism is saying, As Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O'Hara, there's one thing I do know . . . and that is that I love you."


In our times, we have to strip away the cultural referents by naming them in order to enter into some authentic space.  Hoi Polloi strips away every excess, every layer, patiently.  Layers of media, layers of reality,  layers of memory, layers of audience and actor, truth and embellishment.  It is the most remarkably effective method I have seen and one I greatly admire.  


It would really make me insanely jealous if it hadn't made me so happy.


UPDATE:  I add a quote from an American theologian for reasons that will remain obscure:


“ . . some moment happens in your life that you say yes right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen. laughing with somebody till the tears run down your cheeks. waking up to the first snow. being in bed with somebody you love... whether you thank god for such a moment or thank your lucky stars, it is a moment that is trying to open up your whole life. If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. if you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul.” 

― Frederick Buechner


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Unit of Measure, a poem by Sandra Beasley


All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.
Everyone eats greater or fewer watermelons
than the capybara. Everyone eats more or less bark.
Everyone barks more than or less than the capybara,
who also whistles, clicks, grunts, and emits what is known
as his alarm squeal. Everyone is more or less alarmed
than a capybara, who—because his back legs
are longer than his front legs—feels like
he is going downhill at all times.
Everyone is more or less a master of grasses
than the capybara. Or going by the scientific name,
more or less Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris

or, going by the Greek translation, more or less

water hogEveryone is more or less
of a fish than the capybara, defined as the outermost realm
of fishdom by the 16th-century Catholic Church.
Everyone is eaten more or less often for Lent than
the capybara. Shredded, spiced, and served over plantains,
everything tastes more or less like pork
than the capybara. Before you decide that you are
greater than or lesser than a capybara, consider
that while the Brazilian capybara breeds only once a year,
the Venezuelan variety mates continuously.
Consider the last time you mated continuously.
Consider the year of your childhood when you had
exactly as many teeth as the capybara—
twenty—and all yours fell out, and all his
kept growing. Consider how his skin stretches
in only one direction. Accept that you are stretchier
than the capybara. Accept that you have foolishly
distributed your eyes, ears, and nostrils
all over your face. Accept that now you will never be able
to sleep underwater. Accept that the fish
will never gather to your capybara body offering
their soft, finned love. One of us, they say, one of us,
but they will not say it to you.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Engaging With Christianity: It is a hassle, and I feel like a jackass

  I find myself working on an amicus brief on behalf of  a small group of Wheaton College alumni.  We have something to say in a lawsuit Wheaton has filed. We oppose Wheaton suing the HHS saying that the Obamacare contraceptive mandate violates Wheaton's religious liberties.   Wheaton decided to file this lawsuit as a political act.  If you don't think so, then consider this.  As it turned out the contraceptives that Obamacare required -- the ones that were such an affront to the school's religious liberty -- had long been available on Wheaton's private insurance and indeed they had to cancel provisioning of the contraceptives in order to file suit.

As an alumni, I see this lawsuit as a dangerous retreat from Wheaton's position as a beacon of tolerance and intellectualism in Christianity.  In contrast to the dangerous anti-intellectualism that characterizes much Evangelical Christianity, Wheaton taught me never to fear the life of the mind.  Not to say that all of the students had one.  I remember correcting philosophy papers as a teaching assistant and being bowled over by how many people simply wrote a variation on God Is Awesome!  Why worry about Hegel!  We are AWESOME for being Christians.  But then, a lot didn't.  Jon Sweeney and Jen Grant are two authors from my class who spring to mind.  They had baptists at Wheaton, Catholics even, Methodists and Evangelical Free Church members.  Many strains of Christians were under one roof and got along.  The creed was   "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." 

Wheaton cheapens and narrows Christians by arguing that "Christians" do not support morning-after type pills when actually some Christians do.  And Wheaton cheapens religious liberty when it tries to give itself (a school, a legal fiction) more freedom of conscience than it is willing to give to its own students and staff.  Even calling compliance with Obamacare a violation of religious liberties makes me nauseous.  Who can't practice their religion in this situation?  Who is denied religious expression?  It's a perversion to even bring up religious liberties. This lawsuit is extreme evangelicals trying to test the waters on making Wheaton more extreme.   

So despite it likely giving me a Class A Moron designation, I  want to remind these guys about love and charity being at the forefront of Christianity, and tolerance and respect for individual's consciences being a chief virtue.  I basically want to remind Wheaton of all the great things that I learned there, things that I miss about Christianity.  I remember learning the ontological argument for the existence of God - that which nothing greater can be conceived.  Well, I am a fish with a big imagination and I can conceive some pretty great things.  I still hold out some hope that this God  greater of which I cannot conceive  (so very like Nina Simone) exists.  The God I can imagine would not be interested in ghettoizing and isolating religion by trying to strike a blow against a president some people don't like.   the God I imagine would not confuse the culture of the religion with the religious practices itself. I used to calmly make this point in my annual appointment with Dr. Chase, who was the President of Wheaton during my time.  I made the appointment in the fall to complain about the football team praying for victory during chapel.  It's like praying for a parking space.  That cheapens everything.  You think God is going to listen to your prayers about winning a football game when tens of thousands of people pray for food yet starve to death or pray for peace and are refugees of war?  Come on!  It's that kind of stuff that really gets me going. Remember Joe McClatchey?  Frederick Buechner?  Arthur Holmes?  How would they react to this lawsuit?  Jonathan Blanchard was more like Lincoln than he was like Pat Robertson.

Somehow I can't walk away.  And the same self-righteous jackass impulse that got me into that mess with the Wheaton alumni is getting a workout at my son's school  

I find myself with a son enrolled at a Christian school despite being an ex-Christian.  I have a great group of friends at the school, it is a magic place in many ways.  However, we are seeing Evangelical influence on the secondary culture of the school, where the values and practices of American Evangelical culture (i.e. big fat cupcakes in bake sales, condemnation of homosexuality as sin)  as distinct from American religious practice (i.e. prayer) are becoming an increasing phenomenon.  What is the culture that hosts the religion and what is the religion?  Those bake sales are the culture - the one legal high for an observant Christian - sugar.   But its a blurred line.

 My son's school is a private school, it goes from age 4 - 14 so far, 130 kids in nine classes.  You need not be a Christians to enroll.  But many are (some very serious evangelicals from the US) and there is a feeling that while the school is a Christian school, the community should defer to a narrower view of community, a smaller group called Evangelicals.  People who are not Christians are feeling a little cowed, a little silenced and a little concerned.

I really hope our feelings are wrong.  The parent committee is called the Community Association.  And it is open to anyone who has a child there.  So it is open to me.  So I am in this community just as much as anyone else and I will not be cowed.  Let me tell you about one member of the Community.  I am a latte-drinking, sushi-loving, liberal leaning,  yoga practicing human who loves television. I am an ex-Christian. I went to a Christian school, then went to Harvard law school  where Barack Obama introduced me to my roommate.  I even taught Sunday School at St. Peter's in Porter's Square, sometimes despite catastrophic hangovers.  But the more I thought about it the less I could believe that the bible had more truth than other books, or that the resurrection was a thing that happened. I don't think that the bible is the inerrant word of god (many Christians do not) but I still love lots of it very much.   I love plays.  I write them. My brother is a gay rights activist  and I am very proud of him. He is followed like Gandhi whenever we walk down 17th St in DC together, so many little rent boys has he homed and helped and loved when their own parents kicked them out of the house.  My son has three godmammas, two are a lesbian couple.  I don't believe creationism is valid science and I wish people would stop throwing shade on Charles Darwin.  I don't believe that submission to authority is a virtue, sure I know classrooms must have order.  But obedience for the sake of obedience, garnered by fear not by love, is  a pretty hollow thing.  Almost a year ago I kind of turned into a protester.  I was on the streets with Occupy London and it changed me.  I think people should spend less time parenting and more time tending the world that the children they are raising will eventually have to inhabit.  As we stress about secondary Evangelical influences and bake sale obligations, the centre of Cambridge is being reconfigured and privatized, Europe's economy is collapsing- yes, you see, I get like that.

I have many many generations of Christian missionary blood in my veins.  But instead of the classic missionary manifestation: cultural hegemony of going somewhere new and saying,"Hey, hi, do you want to go to this hospital?  Just say you are a Christian." or "All your religious beliefs are wrong and mine are right", I had some kind of mutation.  My missionary work is to keep Christianity as big and important as the god it is supposed to serve.  Ha!