Thursday, April 22, 2010

An actor's work on a role

Very interesting religion and theater experience today, though not in the Religion and Theater class. The class "American Religion in the Age of AIDS" had invited in Yvette Heyliger, an African American playwright, author of a play on AIDS and the Black church called "What Would Jesus Do?" Yvette came with one of the actors from her show, Jerome Preston Bates, and they offered readings of a few scenes and discussion of the development of the play and its reception. It's always great to hear a play read, and this is a dramatic and funny one, and in places profound: a character has a dream of a black Jesus on the cross whose blood is HIV+. It was clear why the play was a success and also a bit of a scandal.

What turned out to be even more interesting was Jerome's description of his process as an actor, or - let me cut the theater BS - his difficulty with the part. He played a man, a successful church-going paterfamilias in Harlem, who contracts HIV in an anonymous encounter with another man - his first, he claims - and infects his wife. Jerome's a seasoned actor, who's appeared in TV soaps, "Law & Order," films, and plays by August Wilson - and several earlier plays of Yvette's - so playing a morally complicated character won't have been new to him. (He's played Jimi Hendrix!) What made this part such a challenge? Bates isn't just an actor; he's a Baptist minister. His character wasn't believable to him.

Jerome prefaced his reading with a somewhat surprising account of how he would have written the play. At the end Mr. Wilson (his character) would have come to the church and repented; that's what the church is for, people come to it for healing. But it's Yvette's play, he said, and he had to play what she had written - and did, both as an actor and as her friend. She confirmed that he'd had a hard time at first, and that it was a relief and a joy to everyone when he worked it out.

At the time, this seemed more a personal preference - that Jerome would have found a repentance scene more dramatically satisfying or more true to the black church. (Yvette, while raised in the church, has been practicing an Asian meditation tradition for two decades; she didn't know, for instance, that her title echoes the whole WWJD movement.) But in the subsequent Q&A it became clear that it went deeper. It emerged that Jerome thinks homosexuality is, like all forms of sexuality outside of marriage, condemned by the Bible. Accordingly, like many conservative Christians, he doesn't think homosexuality really exists, just homosexual behavior. He reiterated that the church is a community of sinners, none is without sin, not one, whether it's infidelity or stealing from the office or "what they think is a homosexual relationship." In his version of the play, Mr. Wilson isn't a bisexual or homosexual man coming out, however unwillingly, but a man called (like all men) to the ministry of heterosexual marriage who has committed sexual sin and needs to get right with God - which he could, if he turned to the church for healing.

It took the students in the class some time to understand (or believe) that he was really saying that homosexual behavior needed "healing," not a position often represented in our hallowed halls. I'm not sure I've been in a conversation with someone who believes that, either.

But I have to say that I was moved that someone who believes what he does was still, despite the difficulty, willing to act in Yvette's play - and to come with her to perform the scene. (Not to mention in the belly of the beast, a class on AIDS and religion at the New School!) She had described her play as a sort of "theater ministry," and he was doing ministry, too. Witnessing. But it was two kinds of witness, or a double-pronged witness. Perhaps he came to confront us with what he takes to be the truth about homosexuality, though that surely wasn't his main objective. He was also testifying to the power of friendship and understanding, and to the challenges (and limits?) of theater. Jerome doesn't share Yvette's view but as her friend it's his job to help her express it. And as an actor, it's his job to play his part believably - even to be something he thinks doesn't exist, a character wrong about his very identity.

And as a "Christian," it's his job to love the sinner. One doesn't often get a chance to see how tortured this can be in practice (and so to understand the depth of the torture and self-torture on the other end).

Is it very queer of me to be moved by this?

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