All things to all men

Finding a worship service during a trip to the theater

Issue: "Germ warfare and national security," June 2, 2001

I've gone cold turkey off culture since my husband died and made it all pointless, but it's not every day you see the word gospel in bold letters on the front of the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer "Arts and Entertainment" section, so my curiosity was piqued. I rounded up child care and a friend and headed downtown to the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia for a musical play "produced by African Americans for African Americans and starring African Americans." It was rainy, cold, and Wednesday, mind you, and the house was packed out save for four seats in the amphitheater and two in the orchestra section. We grabbed the latter.

The lights were doused and I was as black as anybody then, and settled in unselfconsciously, no longer awkward as a voyeur at someone else's family reunion. Close your eyes and you can feel a culture around you. I am a person laid back to the point of pulselessness, but I felt an energy in the room not typical of the "thea-tah." This audience was "for" the play already, predisposed to cheer, to affirm-and bent on an interactive experience. I remembered my very first class at seminary, 23 years ago, where the single black student interjected from a corner of the auditorium, at regular intervals, loud "amens" to fine theological pronouncements on Pauline theology from the podium. An orator's dream, I thought.

God Don't Like Ugly is the title in case you go (Marvolous Productions's "urban circuit" plays to sold out houses all over the country), which in honky translation comes out closer to "You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell" (Psalm 5:4). And the action, which can scarcely contain itself from erupting into raucous and strung out R&B and gospel song at every point, is an elaboration of that idea:

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Ugly is the slow draught of poison released back in Eden that claimed protagonist Jackie's husband to premature death, and now her mother to cancer. Ugly the grief that then turns to blame of God and rejection of his lordship over her life. Ugly the resulting downward spiral into neglect of her teenage daughter, and a parasitical relationship with the abusive slickster Rex Reid, who tries to con Jackie out of the inheritance left by her mother.

But as I for one have learned (and by the sounds of it, most of the audience, too), you don't find God till you've lost everything else. And so Jackie will drop to her knees in the end, thanks in no small measure to the persistence of a pastor who makes house calls, and an aunt who never tires of proclaiming that "God may not come when you want, but He's always on time."

A subplot is the parallel transformation of the gay brother (who shows up to the funeral in pink faux-fur hot pants, high heels, a bikini top, and black head band), but not before his obscene persona is played out for all it's worth. This is not your granny's Sunday school pageant down at the local church; the playwright, born-again believer Carlton K. Hamilton, paints the darkness about as black and lurid as it gets before relieving us with light, scripting bodily gyrations scarcely defendable as choreography, and which a Christian woman blushes to describe any further. It's a bold calculation, and best left to the Lord to judge.

But this I will hazard to weigh in on: As Uncle Willie "put off" his ladies' fineries and "put on" Christ when at last his own debauched life caved in, my companion leaned over and whispered to me, "Not politically correct, is it?" And I thought, "Yes, just so," and wondered at how they got away with just a light slap on the wrist for this from the Inquirer. But what's a reviewer to do? You tread a fine line when you don't want to appear homophobic on the one hand or racist on the other.

The charge of low "production values" and dearth of Tony Award-quality acting is a harder rap to beat, though after the first half hour, submitting to the play on its own terms, you begin to question even this-the judgment of non-Christian white men on Christian black men. The accusation suddenly seems to miss the point. We were looking at things all wrong, weren't we? This is not theater but a worship service. This is the gospel in one of its multifarious forms, being all things to all men. The roof is bouncing and the rafters swaying, and I see "David, wearing a linen ephod, danc[ing] before the Lord with all his might" (2 Samuel 6:14).

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