Sunday, April 24, 2011

#319: Why Do You Seek the Living Among the Dead?


Too many angels...
And as they were afraid, and bowed down [their] faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? ~ Luke 24:5

This wasn't today's Easter gospel lesson, but it is one of my favorite parts of the story, along with the scene where Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Even after all they had been through together, when the moment of truth (TRUTH) arrived, the disciples didn't recognize Jesus when they saw him. I don't think we're much different from they were.

I was really looking forward to Holy Week this year. What with having come back from the dead and all, I thought I would have special insight, that the season would have special meaning for me. I anticipated praying the Stations of the Cross, the foot washing on Thursday, the somber grief of Friday evening and the bells and first joyful "Alleluia" of Saturday's Easter Vigil. It's the holiest season of the year, and the most beautiful liturgy of the church year. I couldn't wait.

Then, on Tuesday morning the phone rang.

My friend was directing a play, and one of the actors had fallen very ill. Could I cover for him? I didn't have to think twice. Julieanne was an angel to me during my illness. She was a faithful friend and visitor. She made it her personal mission to give me a reason to stay alive by producing a staged reading and rehearsing it slowly over several months to give me time to recuperate and prepare. I didn't consider refusing for an instant.

Of course, after I agreed, she told me there was just one hitch. The play was opening in two days. Maundy Thursday.Damn. But, a friend is a friend, and a promise is a promise. I told her to email me my lines, and I would be at the theatre in time for her to show me where to stand.

Adult themes. Not for the faint of
heart. But then, neither is life.
The play, The Happy Hour, by Sterphen Currens is a world premier.It is about Seth, a young man living through New York City's AIDS holocaust of the 1980's. I play his mentor, Gordon, an old, gay professor whose platonic, fatherly love helps to inspire and guide Seth along his journey through the hell of self destruction, judgement, and ultimately, redemption. It was an easy role for me to wrap my mind around. I have had many such teachers over the years. And there's enough of Gordon in me that it wasn't hard to put him together.Teh playwright has crafted some lovely moments for the role, particularly one scene where Gordon tells Seth about what it was like to grow up in a world where gay men had to be fearful of violence, the law, even one another. I'm lucky to be the first person to play this beautiful part. But as it turns out, this is more than just another chance to get on stage.

I lived in New York during the 'Eighties. I remember the painful lunch in a favorite diner where my friend revealed his positive test results. Mrs P and I attended the memorial services. We cried with our sick friends and prayed for our dead ones. I remember the beautiful, talented young men, so full of life, who faded from a world that didn't know quite what to make of losing them. The American stage was decimated in ways that we may never really appreciate. When it was time for us to leave the city, and I saw an opening at a theatre in Lexington where Mrs P's sister and her family lived, I jumped at the interview. Once I found out the kind of work they did at Actors' Guild, I was sold. They were committed to contemporary theatre. Their plays were rarely more than five years old. Consequently, much of their repertory touched on this contemporary crisis, the AIDS epidemic that had taken so many of the people I loved. It was a story I wanted to help tell.

Old Soldier, Larry Kramer
That was a long time ago. AIDS is still killing people, but it has long since stopped being the disease du jour in fashionable circles. I recently read an interview of playwright and activist Larry Kramer in Salon where he lamented the new generation's changed attitude towards AIDS in particular and the gay community in general.
I don't know why so many gay men don't want to know their history. I don't know why they turned their back on the older generation as if they don't want to have anything to do with them. I would like us to get beyond that.
Yeah, I know. It kind of sounds like one of those "What's the matter with kids today?" speeches that old guys are always spouting, but there's something important here, too.

The story isn't being told.

Like so many in our culture, the gay community is losing track of its history. The pride and strength that we all can find in the struggles and triumphs of those sometimes heroic, but always human warriors for dignity and justice is being lost. Their story must continue, no matter how painful it is to hear.

I moved from Brooklyn to the Bible Belt to help tell that story. It's been a long time since I've had a chance to do that on stage.

So what does all this have to do with Easter? A lot, I think. The dead have taken over so much of our world. Our stages are filled with the works of dead playwrights and warmed over versions of cartoons - characters that never lived at all. Seemingly brain-dead politicians and demagogues preach worn-out gospels of fear and division that encourage cynicism and weakness. Athletes we don't know playing games we can't play are used to sell us shirts and shoes we don't need. We spend time and money - we spend our lives - seeking inspiration from the dead, when real inspiration, real love lives and walks among us every day.

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdaline
Lavinia Fontana
Like Mary in the garden, we look into the eyes of Christ every day and see a bum, a fag, a socialist, a fascist, a fat pig, a tree hugger, a wet back, a terrorist. For thirty years - my god, can it be thirty years? - we have looked into the eyes - or is that avoided the eyes?- of men and women dying of AIDS and asked, "What have you done with him? Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." And all the time, the body of Christ lay bruised and broken right before us.

The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.That phrase first appears in Psalm 118: 22, and it is repeated in the New Testament over and over. What the world rejects, God uses to build the foundations of God's kingdom. The teenage mothers. The fatherless children. The deadbeat dads. The abused and the abusers. The unemployed. The unpopular. The untouchables.

The story has to be remembered for God's sake, and for ours. The story has to be told. Just as Julieanne's love helped to bring me back from the edge of death, God's love, working through us, can help to redeem all of God's suffering children. And who among us is excluded from that group?

I love my Bible. I say my prayers. I rejoice in worship and praise. These things connect me with the communion of saints, the "great cloud of witnesses" who testify to God's loving grace throughout the centuries. But when the hymns have all been sung and the communion cups washed and put away for another week, Christ is still among us, waiting for us to serve the living. As Gus, Seth's therapist in The Happy Hour tells him as he struggles with his own sense of purpose and identity:
Peace begins with you. Love is a gift from God. Justice is elusive.
We may never know a just world. But with God's help and love, we have to capacity to live in peace, with our Creator, our neighbors and our selves. Christ doesn't live in prayer books and hymnals. He lives in the eyes and hearts of our sisters and brothers. That is where we must seek him. That is where we must serve him.

That is the story I want to tell. That is why I make theatre. When I woke up on Tuesday, the opportunity to do that was already waiting for me.The stone had rolled away in the night, and I didn't even hear it moving.Strange as it seems, I believe this is the reason God redeemed me from death's grasp. I may not make a bit of difference in the world, but in serving my neighbors, I serve the God who loves them.

May God grant all of us such a mission and, when we need them, such lucky servants.

Peace and Alleluia,

Pennsy

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