Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Contract Raises Questions

The cast of "The Contract" by James Webb.  Webb , in foreground,  played Pastor Daryl.

The divide between gay and God.  For so many in Christian churches, that divide seems to be alive and well.  And it is that dualism that is the subject of James Webb's play, "The Contract".   Webb is a graduate of Florida A and M University, and to the theater department's credit, they decided to put on this production at a time when that campus is facing increased scrutiny after Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion was killed during a hazing incident.  Champion was gay, and rumors are that this hazing turned particularly violent in part because of his sexual orientation.  Whether that will ever be proven and whether anyone will ever be held accountable is all up in the air.   The "gay angle" has been somewhat looked at mostly by the campus newspaper.  But the whole incident has raised questions about being gay and black on the campus.  When you add Christian into that... it becomes really wiggy.

In the play, Pastor Daryl has what he calls "an affliction".  His wife Deborah insists her husband is NOT gay, but a bisexual even though their relationship is clearly a business arrangement for the purposes of a Birmingham megachurch.   Paul is a young graduate student recruited by Deborah to service her husband.  She makes Paul sign a contract.  And she spends the play trying to enforce this contract, manipulating both men, and determined to be the one in control.  As she notes to Paul, an avid chess player, "the queen has the power on the board.  All the rest are pawns."   Paul asks questions, and pushes Daryl to consider the double-life he is leading by pretending to be straight as he leads a flock of thousands in his church.  Daryl remains conflicted and finally yells it out that what he fears is hell.   The pastor has internalized everything that had ever been said or done to him in the church and can not reconcile his homosexuality with his Christianity.  And so he tries to keep them apart, having Paul as his New York City play thing and very far removed from Birmingham.
Meanwhile, Paul, who really hadn't spent much time in church, has become curious about the Bible and finds such gems as the story of David and Jonathan.   Of course, this is one of the passages from 1 Samuel that a lot of us queer Christians are keen to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.   And we are always told by the scholars, the priests, the theologians, that the kind of bonding those two men had was purely platonic and not at all sexual.   I find it fascinating how quick some are to "explain" David and Jonathan's relationship while insisting that other readings condemn me.   Paul repeats things that Daryl has said about God in an effort to make the man see the light that he can be gay and Christian.   At long last, Daryl does realize that his sexuality is a gift and not a curse.  But not without paying a heavy price.

Such is the truth of being authentic.   And in achieving authenticity, the character Daryl finds himself closer to God than he ever has been before.  No statement could be truer of what it means to be in relationship with God.  Hell, for Daryl, was trying to compartmentalize a piece of himself as if he could hide that from the all-knowing God from whom all our desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid.  In many ways, all the characters come to know a peace at the end of the play.

As interesting as the story line was, I found myself also taking in the audience in this intimate performance space.  Before the last lines were said, at least five people had walked out, one quite loudly popped up from her seat and stormed off.   The young woman next to me had to sit separately from her friend.  She was so upset by the subject matter that at intermission, she turned to her friend and begged her to go.

"I got work tomorrow, and I gotta go to church and repent of this sin!"
"They weren't really kissing.  This is a play!" her friend answered.

The girl started crying.  She had been so looking forward to this play all day, but she had no idea what it was going to be saying about black church leaders.  She pleaded with her friend to please let her go and sit in the car.  Meanwhile, as the lights went down, I noticed that the couple that had been on the other side of her had already left.  Perhaps they, too, had become uncomfortable.  The two girls stayed... almost to the end.  But they couldn't hang on long enough to see how this story would resolve itself.

Those of us who did stay gave the performers a standing ovation.  It was a very risky, touchy topic, and I appreciated the willingness to bring more light into the darkness of the down low and hypocrisy of the church, particularly the black church which has carried a megaphone into the megachurch pulpit to call gay people an abomination even though their choirs, ushers, and sometimes deacons and pastors are as queer as a three dollar bill.

For that young woman, and the others who felt the need to leave, perhaps they don't have ears to hear or eyes to see what is right in front of them.   But their attitudes show that there will be those who will turn their backs rather than to consider the Christ that resides in all of us.  Even us gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender ones.     


Phoebe McFarlin said...

Apparently there were many issues presented in this play. Too bad that some only saw the one, male kissing male and felt that it was their own sin to see it happening! I wonder what other reactions were, and did the audience have an opportunity then or later to discuss it?

SCG said...

There had been a discussion after the matinee performance on Saturday, but not after the Saturday evening show. I didn't know anyone there, so I had no one to talk to or find out what other reactions were out there. But certainly, there were many of us who remained and we appreciated the performances which were REALLY good. All three performers became their characters. It was impressive.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a very interesting experience... Glad you went.


James Webb said...

Thanks for coming to see the show, SCG. I think this article represents the play very well and gives a good interpretation of the experience that audiences had. It was an absolute joy to present it in Tallahassee and we look forward to bringing it back again in May. (This time in the bigger theatre space.) Keep doing what you're doing. All my best, James Webb-the playwright :-)