nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
May 4, 2007
About her new piece, Church, Young Jean Lee writes
CHURCH will be a beautiful, sincere, unconventional Christian service that challenges the assumptions and beliefs of Christians and non-Christians alike. Using music, preaching, dance, and slides, CHURCH will attempt to elicit intense emotional reactions from the audience, confronting and overturning ironic or indifferent attitudes towards the show's subject matter. The main character will be a charismatic (in the sense of having charisma, not in the sense of speaking in tongues), politically left-leaning preacher who defies traditionally held Christian assumptions in a way that borders on the heretical, but who ultimately conveys a passionate message about why Christianity matters and can change people's lives. He will be accompanied by three females who sing and dance, and the show will close with a large choir singing a gorgeous, rousing gospel hymn.
I found it odd to be presented with something so wholly academic, and there is an overwhelming urge I'm fighting not to go through the above paragraph with a red pen and point out what did and did not either happen and/or work, but ultimately the piece just didn't move me enough to care to do that.
Religion, especially Christian Evangelism, has been a hot-button issue throughout history and especially so in recent years. The film Jesus Camp documented zealotry in the early stages, infamous Colorado Springs preacher Ted Haggard has dominated news outlets for a good chunk of time for his maybe-not-so-Christian behavior, and our dear leader has said that he prays daily and gets advice on how to run the country from God. Each of these examples ignites a fire inside me—I don't consider myself religious, but zealotry on any scale drives me mad.
After seeing Church, I'm not sure that writer/director Young Jean Lee is at all moved by the topic. The text seems to be geared at pleasing a 20-30-something crowd, with Madlib-esque non-sequiturs and a blasé delivery. One minute she's got a preacher talking about the sins involved in losing oneself in a world of self help, the next she's talking about goats. I couldn't tell if she was poking fun at the uber-religious or if she was on their side. Perhaps this was her intention, though it was not specifically listed in her thesis statement above. At any rate, she lost me somewhere along the way.
I also could not get my mind around the cast. The preacher, "Reverend Jose" (Greg Hildreth), though a captivating actor, never pushes beyond the put-on to really preach. As for the three ladies, "Reverend Karinne," "Reverend Weena," and "Reverend Katie," I couldn't quite figure out if their constant state of calmness came from some close tie with the Lord, a sense of knowing more than the masses or none of the above. At one point in the show, they drop everything and sing a gorgeous harmony, then break out into a dance full of energy that could only be inspired by something resembling a higher power. I wish that the same energy had infused the show up to that point.
Ultimately, I did not feel at all challenged by the piece, my religious fire was not stoked, and I really didn't have any emotional reactions. The indifferent attitudes toward the show's subject matter that Lee is hoping to confront and overturn are, in my opinion, what she ended up presenting. I happened to catch Billy Graham on television on a recent trip out of town. To that I had an emotional reaction, but to Church, no.