Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Through all the waves

The scene: Friends of Firefighters, a community center supporting current and past members of the FDNY in Red Hook, Brooklyn, one block from the harbor. When hurricane Sandy hit New York just over a year ago, the room was under four feet of water. Once the water subsided, it housed 28 visiting firefighters from around the world in bunk-beds - teeshirts from their various brigades garland the wall. In the kitchen adjacent someone is making pizza. There's coffee and cookies for us.

We're here for a special community event. Famous actors of stage, screen and TV are doing a dramatic reading of an ancient Hebrew poem, the Book of Job - a 30-minute condensation of Stephen Mitchell's poetic translation. Our stars are Arliss Howard, Zach Grenier, David Strathairn. Once they finish, their places at the table will be taken by members of the community who will share their reactions to the story in light of their Sandy experience. Then the event's director, Bryan Doerries, will elicit reflections on disaster and its aftermath from the audience through five questions anchored in the story of Job.

This is the tenth such Job performance/town meeting put on by Doerries' organization of engaged actors Outside the Wire. The first was in Joplin, MO on the first anniversary of the tornado that leveled that small city in 2011, in a big church packed with mostly evangelical citizens. Someone had known of Outside the Wire's work using classic plays with communities struggling with trauma and called them up. Could they do something for this town visited by devastating natural disaster? Someone thought of the man from Uz. In the video made of the event, Paul Giamatti was an anguished Job. The others, including David Strathairn as Bildad and God, were the same as tonight.

"Job in Red Hook" was the third or fourth performance of Job offered to a community affected by hurricane Sandy, the first I was able to attend. (I hope to be there for "Job in Long Beach" on January 26th, and "Job in Staten Island" on February 9th.) I've been interested in Job in performance for a while, and in my book even suggested that its liturgical use worked as a kind of community theater. This setting and frame show just how cathartic the story can be.

The actors had not rehearsed together (is this part of the formula? I could see it making good directorial sense). As they conferred before the reading I overhead Grenier saying he'd been trying to figure out the friends but "it just doesn't add up." (Bingo!) His performance showed he'd come up with a way to make compelling sense of the rest of it, though. Job's an everyman, overwhelmed, angry, hopeful and then less hopeful for justice. In the most blasphemous section of chapter 9 he spoke extra-loud and glanced ever-so-briefly upward, as though trying to shock God into reacting - very effective. When God starts speaking (there's no hymn to wisdom or Elihu in Mitchell's Job) he sounds old and even a bit doddering - not unlike Bildad, read by the same actor - but rises to the poetry, almost lustily describing his powerful monsters. Job recants, in hushed but not abashed tones. God raises his voice now, to Eliphaz and his friends, savoring saying - twice! - that it is not they but his servant Job who has spoken rightly. The narrator tells us in exaggerated tones how Job's ends was greater than his beginning.

I haven't mentioned what might have been the most powerful part of the the reading. Unique among interpretations I've encountered, this one takes seriously Job's friends' grieving and sitting in silence with him before even a word is spoken. After the narrator reads these words there is silence, a long one. Long enough for me to wonder if someone had missed a cue, to understand that it was in fact planned, and to feel the silence welling up from all in the room, called for by all the suffering of Sandy and beyond. This silence grounded the dialogues to follow, in Uz and in Red Hook.

After the actors stepped down - there was no fuss, no chance to let this be about them rather than about Uz and Red Hook - their places on the little improvised stage were taken by a policeman, a mental health specialist, a local business owner, and the head of the local fire station. One appreciated God's question to Job, "Where is the road to light?" (Mitchell's 38:19) and had felt it answered during the aftermath of Sandy through the community's mutual help. One knew there were times when you need friends to come to you, as you aren't able to reach out to them. One was moved by Job's ranting - and his realizing it did him no good: we can't control our circumstances, but we can control our reactions to them.

Then Doerries solicited the audience's reactions. What in this ancient story did they recognize as truthful? Considering Job's friends' silent grieving with him, what human responses to Sandy had affirmed their faith in humanity? On the other hand, thinking more generally of the friends' responses, did they speak to a sort of survivor's guilt in the face of the indiscriminateness of disaster? Did their turning on Job recall experiences the audience had had of the limits to human compassion? And finally, recalling the premise of the end of the story - that good can come out of bad - how do you accept the good things that may come out of disaster while maintaining respect for the memory of what's lost? Searching questions which elicited searching responses. In the end Doerries said: "If there's one message from the Book of Job, it’s that you’re not alone in this room, in this country, in this world… and you’re not alone throughout time."

It was a remarkable discussion, in which many people participated. I don't have time to describe all the things people said (though I tried to write them all down), but I do want to share two with you. The first was the policeman from Rockaway. (His family had moved there just a month before the hurricane.) He was and is a very successful crisis specialist, but this was his first experience being the victim. When the lights went out he felt "disarmed" by his inability to be the savior for his young children. What spoke to him in the story was Job's protest: "what crime have I committed?" He's given his life to service!

What interested me was how he described this: "I'm ashamed to say that's how I feel." Ashamed! (He used the word twice.) I'm not sure how to parse that, but it seems very important, both as a fact about human experience and, perhaps, about Job. Is the humbled helper ashamed to need help himself or ashamed to have failed as a help to others? Ashamed because events forced him to think of his own circumstances and not those of others? What would it be like so completely to understand your life as in the service of others? Did Job so understand himself? Verily, I get something huge each time I hear someone else's wrestling with the Book of Job.

The other response came from a man born around the corner, though he'd moved to Manhattan a few decades ago. Sixteen years ago he was electrocuted and had a near-death experience. He knows God loves him because he was held in God's arms, but "even though I was there I don't know what he's about." Sometimes he thinks God, like us, is limited; like us, like all of us, he does the best he can. What the man does know is that Job's story resonates because "we all live that story every day." Life can be overwhelming and when we get "really clobbered," as everyone does, we can forget our own resilience. "The great thing is we go through all the waves," he concluded, "it's a ride."

I'm not sure I quite understand that either, but here, too, I hear the ring of truth. Job's story isn't a one-off story, isn't about exceptional events merely or even primarily. This man wasn't the only one to assert that Job's struggle mattered to everyday life, even in the context of this discussion about Sandy. An open discussion like this one (thoughtfully structured and expertly facilitated) is humbling and thrilling at once. The insights speaking from the depth of experience, of all people's experience, are staggering.

How big a role did Job's story play in this powerful gathering of shared experience? For some there it clearly had divine force, but for many its power lay elsewhere: a story, ancient and profoundly human. Hearing and seeing it read (and by known actors) contributed something important too. The reading - not unrehearsed but raw - made clear that while Job's is a universal story, his cries are made real in always particular voices. We felt Job's solitude the more keenly for seeing him flanked by faltering friends, and the stifling strangeness of the dialogues - not least the exchange (if it can even be described as such) with God, who is and isn't speaking to Job, is and isn't sitting right there beside him. I can't wait to see this again with a different community...

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