More Excerpts from My Writing: Theatre?

One year later, as I reflect on the question of religious tolerance from the point of view of a failed effort at peace in a small community in central Arkansas, I identify a frustration with society’s tenacious adherence to religious polarity that is so deep within myself that my own creative impulse is silenced and censored with a deafening and almost lethal blow.  I had written my first play “Paul of Tarsus”, a play about the apostle Paul and the start of the Christian church while living in a tent in a forest in the heart of an all Black community in a deeply segregated Southern town.  The play, while educational in its exposition of Acts, was actually a musical with several Black gospel songs incorporated into it: a gospel rendition of “This little light of mine” being one of them sung by children in the second Act of the play right before their candles are blown out by the police and they are led off to jail.  The scene was written to depict not only the fragility of the newly formed church, but also that of young Black children in these communities. 

The play addressed the question of nonviolence in a community that had a history of gang violence.  It was a Black play, with a Black apostle Paul, and race had been deliberately incorporated into the play in some key scenes to provoke reflection.   In the end, I am not sure why it was boycotted in the community where I wrote it.  It may have been a rejection that was racially motivated, but I think it also had to do with the fact that it crossed religious boundaries.  There were scenes that were written in to be played by the various pastors of the community.  A Baptist pastor baptizing a Catholic priest, a Methodist pastor baptizing a Baptist pastor…While I had obtained everyone’s nominal approval for this, and walked door-to-door in the community to try to obtain participation from over 200 households, no one showed up the day of the play.  It was boycotted, and with a pain that cut so deep into me, at the rejection of this beautiful peace offering that I had created for God and the community, I left.  God was surely disappointed.

I don’t know if my play will ever be performed. It was meant to be a community event written to have various small communities around the states come alive with creative potential, thinking outside of the narrowly defined boundaries of gang allegiance, and learning to act in new roles, some of them admittedly uncomfortable, staunch Christians acting the part of Jews, a black stoning of a white martyr…  Although I had written the play, I had a lot to learn about theatre.  I surely was not a master of the art. 

Theatre is known in most indigenous cultures.  They have a space where stories, songs, and dances are acted out usually with religious themes that involve the mastery and/or confrontation of an object that inspires fear – the weather, animals, war, death.  Anthropologically, the earliest identified archeological evidence of a mask is a stone death mask dating to 7000 BC found in[l1]   The earliest recorded theatre dates to 2000 BC with the passion plays of Osiris[i].  This was performed annually according to Egyptian records.  The theatrical aspect of storytelling evolves because of the deliberate manipulation of emotion to a heightened state in the audience by the focus of the narrative in order to enhance memory and concentration.  It becomes an art.

Although Jewish theatre has developed extensively in the 20th century, Judaism has traditionally held a fierce commitment to reality.  Indeed, many eminent scientists are Jewish.  Artistic expression to some extent has historically been considered idolatry, and ancient theatre may have been placed in that category.  Could this have been a reactive stance to Greece?

 Within the context of the Bible, there are at least 2 stories that are prehistoric and, if one is prepared to entertain the idea that they are not literal, could have their roots in indigenous primitive theatre.  I can easily imagine the staging. Both stories, if they did indeed exist as theatre, might have evolved to a narrative state in a new culture since theatrical transmission has not been maintained.  I hypothesize that the 2nd creation and original sin story of Genesis 2, and the covenant story of Genesis 15 could have been primitive theatre – the first, possibly imported from other cultures. 

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac may also be in that category (it certainly would make pretty good dinner theatre), but because the story takes place on a mountain (hard to stage), I am reluctant to put it in this category.  Isaiah has a reference to “Your Mountains of Isaac”.  It may be that the theatrical aspect of this story was repeatedly performed, the same way that the story is reenacted using Ishmael in Isaac’s place at Mecca in the Islamic tradition.   Perhaps, in those times, it was a ritual coming of age of the first born son who never knew whether he was coming down the mountain alive or not. 

The original sin story has both sound and anthropomorphic movement (the sound of God walking), as well as the snake that speaks and is forced to its belly.  When learning to read the Torah, a book that was probably the first teaching tool for generations of Jews, I am struck by the gradual introduction of vocabulary, the slight variation in vocabulary that occurs as one proceeds from one paragraph in the next.  The student is constantly challenged to differentiate the words and pronunciation.  With the second creation story, one imagines a nomadic tribe with women and children, finding a tree.  They sit around the tree, and slowly, the children are explained with a campfire story and costumes, that they are not to eat certain fruit from trees, that snakes are dangerous, that they are old enough to wear clothes. 

The second story that might be theatre has God making his covenant with Abraham, and appearing as a flaming pot moving through the sacrificed animals (another pretty good evening dinner theatre if you can stomach the violence against animals).  One imagines everyone sitting in 2 lines across from one another, plates in front of them, while the story of the tribal covenant with God is recited, and the flaming pot moving through the darkness with food that will eventually end up on everyone’s plate.

As written languages and records would evolve in post-exilic Israel, the sacredness of the writing would be articulated, and these primitive theatrical stories would be superseded by rituals performed in holy places, temples or tabernacles, by priests.  Later, in the 5th and 6th century BC, theatre would develop as a highly sophisticated art form dissociated from religious meaning in Greece.  With the developed sea-faring culture, there would have been interaction between Greece and Israel, and theatre as a formal venue might have developed although under severe censorship from the priests.  And yet, long before this, one has David’s court and the psalmists with their musical talents singing and dancing the stories of the old testament – and also the song of the Reed Sea in Exodus 15.

 [l1]Stone death mask location

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