“Church” Blows the Roof Off Religion, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

“Church” Blows the Roof Off Religion, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

Young Jean Lee Reincarnates Faith in Song and Dance

by Barry David Horwitz

Crowded Fire’s intimate stage is now the pulpit of a church, with soaring ceilings and high church windows. It’s all bathed in a bright, spiritual glow like sunshine indoors, and we are the faithful, summoned to witness the four pastors’ religious testimonies.

On the steep pews facing them, we are plunged into complete darkness—while a resonant voice out of the dark intones everyone’s basic fears, doubts, and insecurities. The booming male voice questions why we are there, what we fear, and our “disappointing mediocrity.” He calls out a litany of our hidden pretensions, as we sit in the dark. I cannot help but cringe and then laugh out loud—it’s that kind of show.

Lawrence Radecker in “Church.” Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

The pastoral tongue-lashing goes on for a long time, until Reverend Jordan (scintillating Jordan Maria Don) comes down to begin the first of many testimonies about finding faith, losing it, and finding it again. Each of the four Reverends testifies, and we are not sure if they are using their real names or names from the play. They tell their stories so grippingly and so sincerely that we are intrigued. We want to believe them.

But something’s amiss—the stories get outlandish, the imagery more bizarre, and the strangeness escalates. Sometimes they approach the audience—one says, “You may lose your looks….”  They are hitting the soft spots: our depression, loss, heartbreak…our need to be “right.”

With her 2008 play, “Church,” Playwright Young Jean Lee has done it, again—she has put us into a familiar place, and is slowly pulling the rug out from under us. She has us where she wants us—unable to tell truth from fiction, questioning our opinions about faith, about our place in the Big Picture. Genius strikes home. Director Mina Morita has assembled and designed the perfect cast and company to bring it all home to Crowded Fire Theater. Bravo Mina!

Nkechi Emeruwa, Alison Whismore, and Jordan Maria Don

Three more seductive pastors preach to the choir: The always persuasive and provocative Nkechi Emeruwa; powerful and sly Lawrence Radecker; and smiling, spiritual Alison Whitmore. Along with the bubbly Jordan Maria Don, they keep trying to enlighten and seduce us, the  churchgoers, in stronger and stronger terms.

We are stymied by their charm, their wit, their tireless talent and investment in the church-like project and just give ourselves up to their ongoing, constantly changing, and calamitous stories. Laughter bursts out when we least expect it.

Nkechi Emeruwa reaches out.

When the whole project breaks up into intense and incongruous dancing, then into a full-on gospel choir, we just have to let go and join up for the madness. Who knows if they are reproducing the feelings of belief and faith, or if they are holding them up to scrutiny? Who are the hypocrites here?

The joy by the end tingles our senses, and I would not want to be anywhere else, except at this Church. Bravo for superb technical and musical numbers that whiz by in a tantalizing flurry of dance and choral singing. We are transported on wings of faith, even as we are forced to question their truth.

Jordan Maria Don, Lawrence Radecker, Nkechi Emeruwa, Alison Whismore

“Church” by Young Jean Lee, directed by Mina Morita, by Crowded Fire Theater, at Portrero Stage, San Francisco, through Saturday, October 6, 2018. Info: www.crowdedfire.org

Cast: Jordan Maria Don, Nkechi Emeruwa, Lawrence Radecker, and Alison Whismore.

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