nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 7, 2005
In Thomas Bradshaw's new play Prophet, a man named Alex hears the voice of God command him to spread a gospel of enslavement of women. After killing his own wife, he marries a black woman named Shaniqua, dresses her in rags and chains, whips her in order to make her obey him, dons a preacher's robe and a gigantic cross and tells his male neighbors in Livingston, New Jersey to do the same to their wives. Eventually, Alex is killed by Shaniqua's ex-boyfriend Tyrone; so God appoints Alex's friend John to be his new prophet, and orders John to sacrifice his daughter. He does so, stabbing her in a forest in Short Hills. Blackout.
Clearly one of the things that Bradshaw wants to do in Prophet is to shock us; but it's not fair to assume that it's the only thing. The play's structure—naturalistic scenes that depict extreme and outsized brutality and thuggery as if it were the most banal and ordinary of occurrences, interspersed with a few fourth-wall-breaking musical numbers—suggests Brecht; the play's staging—a stark, mannered, almost amateurish style—suggests Richard Maxwell. So social purpose would seem to be on the agenda here, and indeed in one scene, where Alex is preaching to his male friends and they are buying into the hateful nonsense he's spewing because it seems to be the "word of God," Prophet almost manages some authentic consciousness-raising, asking why reasonable people are so willing to follow a cause that they know in their hearts is unreasonable.
But a protest play needs to be be protesting against something compelling if we are to take it seriously. The "social ill" that Bradshaw presents here (or parodies, or whatever) is men literally putting their wives in chains and attacking them with a bullwhip. Does that happen a lot in America these days? By going so far overboard to make sure we notice him, Bradshaw misses whatever point he might have been about to make.
He further undermines the ideas in his plays with the sheer ugliness of his presentation. In Prophet, the "n" word that degrades African Americans and the "b" and "c" words that degrade women are used with such regularity that numbness becomes the only defense against them.
And he insults the intelligence of anyone who's familiar with the Old Testament by implying that Abraham and Moses beat and/or enslaved their wives.
I think that Bradshaw has talent and I know that he's got audacity and ambition. He's certainly gotten my attention. I hope he'll stop trying to shock his audiences, and instead will work harder at trying to engage them.