Scorched-post 2: Quaker connections

The play, at first read, seems violent, almost brutal. At my audition I smiled at Blanka and said, “Ohhhhh, Blanka. This play . . . ” After I was cast, I was worried that in these difficult times, audiences would feel overwhelmed by this play, and that it wouldn’t sell. I referred it to it as “that dark play I’m in.” People are shot on stage, grotesque atrocities described and the second scene contains some angry, R-rated outbursts. What, Friend, is Quakerly in this? A lot actually.

A critique I have leveled on some beloved Friends is a tendency to speak of war and peace in abstractions. It’s true that war is bad and peace is good, but what does that mean? What does war really do to us as a species? And what does making peace feel like, especially in the aftermath of war? Here is the territory of Scorched. The play takes us into the savage wasteland where the beast has dominion and walks us right up in front of his grisly maw. It is not a play for the faint of heart. But the faint of heart should also avoid any honest examination of war, or any faithful attempt to make peace where people have been raping and slaughtering each other. My friend Emily Higgs and her partners in the Alternatives To Violence project showed me that. Emily, a Quaker student from Haverford College, has been to South Africa and Rwanda to do peace and reconciliation work. Though 25 years younger than me, she is my Elder in terms of active Quaker ministry in service to our Peace Testimony.

Quakers have traditionally eschewed theory in favor of what is. The testimonies themselves are records of Spiritual truth experienced in the faithful lives of common Friends, as opposed to airy ideas dreamed up by a ministerial class. They are ground-up, not top-down. We are a people who claim to seek the unflinching truth, even if we find it in the jail. Scorched too seeks to tell the truth, but in order to do so it has to take us to some ghastly places: jails, camps, courtrooms. And if that was it, then it would indeed be a dark play, and one I would avoid. But even though I have only just begun rehearsing, I am nevertheless convinced that this is not, ultimately, a dark play. We pass through dark corners on our way to the rising light of hope, which glimmers at the end of Scorched.

But what Scorched really wants to do is show us how we get to these miserable places, what really happens to us there, and how we can get out. Even more importantly, Scorched points out that the goal is not to land in the savage wasteland in the first place. Our task is to learn to live in such a way that we prevent violence before it begins; to “live in the virtue of that light and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” It ends with an extraordinary invitation, delivered by a victim of atrocity, to choose the light over the dark. The play shows a series of very personal choices which have enormous implications. In this, it shows us how we live in the choices we make, and the world isn’t random. It is the sum of those choices.

In this, the play deeply supports the Peace Testimony, which in my experience is most useful as template for how to treat the person right in front of me. In this, we are living close to Jesus. Wars don’t “happen”. People treat each other violently: first one on one, then in small groups and then, ultimately on a large scale and in organized brutality.

Our testimony of Simplicity is seen in the beautifully open and unadorned set design: a great wooden platform which seems to hover, gently raked, over the black stage. Above, three great wooden panels made of the same light colored pine frame the back, left and right sides, a good ten to twelve feet off the stage. These panels seem to hold us, and the whole thing suggests a modern concert hall, or post-modern boxing ring. It also says: no hiding, no artifice. The play will be about Wajdi’s words and our acting of them. I felt a curious mix of inspiration and terror as I gazed at the model for the first time last Friday.

We have been huddled around the table, even now, into our first full week. Blanka sits, pencil in hand, helping us find “the operatives”: the central words, images, ideas in what our characters are saying. I find her cool, focused presence comforting. She is so patient, exact, gentle. She reminds me again of one the great gifts of great directors: the ability to be at the center of everything we’re doing without dominating. It’s all so not about her – and at the same time flowing from her. Or from Wajdi, through her, through us and then finally, to you. Anyway . . . more later.

Scorched-post 2: Quaker connections Wednesday, January 28, 2009