Letters to and from the playwright were what first drew Director Jessi Hill DRA ’07 to Mac Wellman’s award-winning “Sincerity Forever,” letters that were written by the head of the American Family Association condemning the play, and letters received from the National Endowment for the Arts asking to remove any credit that the playwright had given them.
Hill has displayed these letters in the lobby, where their brutal irony assaults unsuspecting passersby. Donald Wildmon of the AFA misses the point entirely, misconstruing the piece as an attack on family values, and upbraiding Wellman for portraying Jesus as a “foul-mouthed bigot.” When beginning work on the play, Hill was afraid that the same thing might happen here in New Haven. After the dress rehearsal she confided that she had feared her peers would misunderstand Wellman’s intentions and believe he was only viciously attacking a certain branch of the religious right, as well as desecrating Jesus himself (or herself, as the case may be here).
Overcoming her initial misgivings, Hill has succeeded in transforming a play that could be easily presented as just a political diatribe into something very human. Two teenage girls dressed in KKK robes and hoods sit in a white Dodge on the stage. And yet the girls are not simply dressed in Klan garb, but wear ordinary clothing beneath the white. Because of what Hill calls a “happy accident,” the robes they found are translucent, allowing the audience to look beneath this mask of blind hate and blind faith and see two very real, very typical high schoolers. This clash of the ordinary with the extreme continues in the second scene when one actor wears a baseball cap, the brim peeking out from under his hood.
This humanization of a group of people that is so often demonized in today’s society is a tribute to both the playwright and the director. For the most part, the actors play not the greater abstractions that Wellman espouses, but the smaller, more tangible personalities of the characters themselves. The only exception to this is Drew Lichtenberg DRA ’08, who, as Hank, has a permanent smirk on his face, giving the impression that he looks down on his character.
And sincerity is what “really matters” in this piece. The actors, for the most part faithful to their characters rather than the larger ideas, come across as sincere in their conviction that these characters believe everything they say. In its title and throughout the play, sincerity’s expression is put on trial.
To the girls, played by with verve by Erin Felgar DRA ’07 and Lisa Birnbaum DRA ’07, sincerity is more important than anything. They would rather be sincere about what little they know than try to pretend that they understand the world. But is their blind faith actually sincerity? Or is it the rantings of furballs from hell (yes, furballs from hell) who claim to know everything and be “more better” than each other? Or is it, as the black, female Jesus asks, the quiet that comes after the hollering, the calm after the storm that is most sincere?
From what we are left with in the end, it would seem Jesus’s choice is true sincerity. Through her direction, however, Hill makes it difficult — and rightfully so — to distinguish which option should be chosen. Masterfully, she draws us in, nearly causing us to believe (or want to believe) what these Klan teenagers accept as truth. That ignorance is bliss. That God does have some higher plan. That everything will work out, and worrying about the problems of the world isn’t much use.
If only it were that simple.
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