Yes the form of church does have semiotic baggage, and that is why the "Constitutional Prophet" character is not involved in the Communion. Putting the Goddess of Liberty in charge of the discussion is my attempt to step away from the patriarchal trappings of the church format used in the first half of the performance. Then the Boal type exercises are utilized to get people to converse with each other in the second half of the show, which is also scripted out. I try to give each half equal time, around 45-50 minutes each. Did you stay to the end when everyone comes back together?
But the idea behind the literature concerning civil religion is that it exists, and is always present in all societies. The UCA is just an attempt to bring the United States version of civil religion to the surface through performance. According to my research you can have religion, without having a God. In America's civil religion We the People could be seen as that religion's supreme, if you need one. I don't, however, personally need one.
Here's the pledge we did in the show
(the * are cues for the stage manager)
*Now for the Pledge of Allegiance
At the UCA
In honor of our founders
We recite the original pledge
The original pledge
As written by Reverend Francis Bellamy
Recite with me
Pledge of Allegiance
I pledge allegiance to my flag
And to the Republic for which it stands
One nation, indivisible
With liberty and justice for all
Notice what's not there?
I'm just confused because the show is usually attacked by right wingers, because the performance removes a lot of the modern day Christianity that has been, in my opinion, included in our money and pledge unconstitutionally. One version of the show includes a political sermon on that subject. I been doing different versions of the show for 5 years and this is first time it's been criticized by liberals. But I am in Memphis now, not Portland or Phoenix.
The original Constitutional Communion involved Wonder bread and Samuel Adams beer, after losing most of my Christian audience because they thought I was mocking them I decided to rewrite the script to making the communion a discussion instead. Yes that was my bad, I went off script when i asked people to raise their hands for the communion but then the actress playing the Goddess of Liberty got the show back on script, which has us numbering people off. Gotta love live theater. But yes, that was totally my screw up. I was hoping no one would notice.
Chris, part of your criticism confuses me a bit. You do understand the "Constitutional Prophet" is a character that only exists as part of the performance of the UCA? I guess I should be flattered that the performance was so strong that you seem to have forgotten that you were at a show. The "Goddess of Liberty," The "Liturgist", and the "Choir Director" are also characters. I can show you the script, which also has stage directions. So I guess you had no complaints about their performances?
I guess I should tell you, i got my undergraduate in play "writing" and acting. The story in the show about the finding of the political scriptures, is fictional. The United Church of America is also a fictional creation, based on a true story, The Constitution. That's what playwrights do, we write plays in the hopes that the audience will be caught up in the experience we create. To prepare for the show we had rehearsals, and even did tech. So, i guess I should say Thank you, my show worked. Also 45 people in three groups having civil conversations with strangers they just met, is a success in my book.
But I am new to Memphis, and some people I believe do have legitimate concerns about how your review painted the show as a "white robed" supremacist meeting, and if someone who didn't attend the performance might not know that it wasn't. You saw the show and you know that it had nothing to do with race, nor did it embrace any radical right wing political beliefs, but you did not make that point clear in your review. That is my criticism. Portions of the script are available online if you wish to criticize the actual content, and the show's actually message. Do you usually not read the scripts of shows you criticize?
I hope you know that that is a website promoting a show, not a person. And try to remember, the "Constitutional Prophet" is a character, while I am an actor who occasionally plays the role.
Chris now that we had our fun and discussed theater theory, you raised an extremely troubling issue. I would have brought it up earlier but I had to celebrate my grandparent’s 58th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want to spoil it. Above you published,
“Later at Otherlands I ran into some people who tried to come into JC for coffee but were completely freaked out by what they saw. They asked me ‘did white robes ever come out.’ I assured them it wasn't that sort of thing but there was no convincing them that they hadn't stumbled onto a recruiting meeting for some nationalist cult.”
You are a journalist, and you apparently make trained choices on what you decide to publish. Of all the comments you heard on the night my show, why did you decide to include these as part of your critique?
Where I come from racism is a very, very serious charge. Now I am new to Memphis so maybe the phrase “white robes” is something that you throw around here.
I am a Tigua Indian whose family is from the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribe located in the El Paso region of Texas. I was the valedictorian of my Native American class at Arizona State University in 2006. Would you have included the phrase, “white robes” in your critique of my show if I was dark skinned like most of my Native American relatives?
Chris, racism is a very serious charge. Let me tell you what I know about racism. Jack Abramoff ripped off my tribe in El Paso and other tribes across the United States, while referring to Native Americans as trogdolytes and monkeys.
You made the journalist choice, to publish the phrase “did white robes ever come out,” as part of the critique of my show, without asking or publishing any follow up questions. In Memphis, is a performance that draws a racially mixed audience usually considered a show where the white robes come out? Remember I am new to Memphis, help me out here; are people typically allowed to characterize a performance as an oppressive nationalist cult without being questioned further? Is this type of journalism common at the Memphis Flyer?
Here are some possible follow up questions I might have asked and included: What part of the show was racist? Was the singing of “This Land is your Land,” oppressive? Is doing the original pledge of Allegiance racist? Was the reciting of the Preamble of the Constitution oppressive? How was the political sermon, “Make America” similar to a nationalist cult’s recruitment speech? What aspects of the performance seemed to include white robes?
Not liking or agreeing with a performance is one thing; however, using quotes from unnamed and unquestioned sources to characterize someone’s performance as racist and oppressive seems to me to be slightly unethical.
Chris, it has been a while since I have been able to talk theater theory. I enjoy your perspective.
The Boal aspects of the show are realized during the discussion when each group’s mediator takes on the role of the Joker, who creates an audience centered discussion, which focuses on their needs; actually a couple of ASU Play Back Theater students were my first mediators. The format also borrows from Christopher Phillips “Socrates Café,” and Martin Buber’s communication theories, so you are correct in your critique that it is not pure to Boal’s form. Being a PhD student everything is a research project, I had to get IRB approval from the University of Memphis in order to record one the groups, with the member’s consent. I am going to analyze that group’s discussion to see if the show is achieving its goal, creating a space for a democratic discussion. From those results I will adjust the show, as you see it’s an ongoing process.
Chris, please do not make assumptions. Would it shock you to know that I am not religious nor do I belong to any ecclesiastical faith and that I actually perform a political sermon that is for the separation of church & state. The didactic tensions in that UCA show during that sermon are wonderful! What I do understand is the power of form, and how the performance of religion can be used as a teaching tool. Here are two letters to the editor I wrote, which actually borrow from my sermon on the need for a separation titled “Tend your Garden”.
I love creating cognitive dissonance in my audience. So, Yes, I believe it is possible to put on a show where as the character, the Constitutional Prophet, I preach a political sermon about the need for a separation of church and state. The premise of the performance is that United States civil religion exists, and I am simply attempting to bring it to the surface through The United Church of America.
Finally, one of my favorite topics Brecht. My critique of Brecht’s theater theory, started as the result of a wonderful day. After participating in a four and half hour work shop with the performance artist, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, I found out that my 3 hour seminar, which only had five people in it, had a guest lecturer, Luis Valdez and some of the original cast of Zoot Suit. In talking to Mr. Valdez about his Campesino theater, we got into a discussion about the disconnect between Bretch’s didactic goal, theater that teaches, and the actual application of his theory. My critique of Bretch actually begins with his boxing match metaphor. A person going to see a boxing match is there to be entertained. My hypothesis is that you may not be able to teach someone who wants to be entertained. They will fight the dialectic. Imagine if a boxer, in between rounds, decided to make a speech about healthcare. My proposal is that if you change the frame, you then maybe change the audience expectation. A performance done using the form of church, takes the audience out of the expectation of entertainment, and possibly opens the door to for a didactic experience. The teacher of my seminar, Dr. Gitta Honegger, who graduated from Vienna and as a Guggenheim Fellow studied and has actually worked with the Berlin Ensemble, helped me develop the United Church of America based on my attempts to achieve a performance that actual accomplishes Bretch’s dream, a “dialectical theater.” Whether or not I accomplish that goal is still under investigation as I continue to research the show as part of my studies.
Thank you for your knowledge and insights, they are much appreciated. I always enjoy our discussions.
Chris you nailed it! The UCA’s main inspirations come from Augusto Boal’s “Theater of the Oppressed”, Newspaper Theater, and Bertolt Brecht’s “dialectical theater.” The performance is my attempt to avoid the cathartic effect, theatricality, in the hopes of achieving social change. I was a Boy Scout who went to Sunday school and my civics class was taught by my middle school football coach. I researched my aunt’s Catholic rituals and studied my grandparent’s Baptist services to build the foundation for The United Church of America. The purpose is to provide an experience of what United States civil religion, if it was practiced regularly, like church, might resemble. As a New Form of Political Theater the end product, the group conversations, is where the audience takes over and performs democracy, which I believe begins with a discussion. The show’s primary goal is to provide a space and a place where people can have political conversations without beating each other up. Did you stay for the discussions?
But the real question is, “Was it polarizing, as polarizing as Folgers Coffee?”
Thanks for the video; I think you captured the spirit of the show. I’ll have to link it to my website www.UnitedChurchofAmerica.org
Thanks Chris! We had a great show last night: Standing Room Only. Yes I want to do another show, however, trying to balance putting a performance together with my PhD studies and teaching is exhausting. I am going to talk to my cast who also have busy schedules and we might try to do a show this summer. I'll keep you updated.
What made last night so wonderful is that the performance ended with 3 groups talking about 3 different things in a civil way, not like the town halls in the news. One group discussed what it meant to them to be Americans, another talked about propaganda, and the third group had a conversation about health care. Each group came up with and decided on their own discussion topics. People had different beliefs, but the conversations were civil because the goal wasn't about trying to convince; the purpose was to learn about not only "what" people believe, but more importantly, attempting to understand "why" someone believes what they believe. Cheers!
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