7/25/2015 THE OLD SHIP OF ZION Essential Theatre Play Festival
**** ( B )
It has been said that a church is not merely “brick and mortar,” but is really the faith and fellowship that dwell therein. (Just Google “Church is Not Brick and Mortar” and count the Biblical references to the idea.) As a crotchety old Atheist, the concept rarely (if ever) occupies my “inner monologue.” But sometimes, a work of theatre cloaks itself in the paradigms and tropes of Biblical Axioms, and, if it “reaches out and grabs my heart,” attention must be paid.
Such a work is Natalia Naman’s “The Old Ship of Zion,” a play filled with faith and testimony, but also filled with characters and incident and self-examining doubt and questioning.
The Old Ship of Zion is a church in a poor, African-American community, one facing foreclosure and the “scattering of its flock.” Quincy is a young college student who sees a service and is struck to the core by the intense faith of its congregation, especially that of “Mama Gwen,” an elder parishioner given to speaking in tongues and trance-like ecstasies. Quincy also meets Siblie, a young woman struggling with the death of her young brother and the coma of her mother (both victims of a Katrina-like disaster). Siblie is a “stranger” to the community, but latches onto the Old Ship of Zion congregation as if it were the only lifeline out of the quicksand her life has become. She also “latches on” to Quincy, a futile gesture, as Quincy is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and the conflict that raises with the church.
When Mama Gwen disappears … well, retires to her dilapidated shack for some health-related R & R, everyone seems to flock to her door, offering support, food, and affection.
And, this is where the play suddenly became more than just a “faith-based polemic,” became an appeal to the heart of a community, no matter what its beliefs and ideologies. Yes, we see the pastor’s rigid non-acceptance of Quincy’s sexuality, we even see an older gay choir leader actively sublimate in order to appease his church (and I’m sure the playwright intends to highlight the harm these attitudes bring). But, when all is said and done, we’re left with a portrait of the strength the old church has brought to this community, the community that will continue with or without the ramshackle structure that is probably at its own “end of days.”
What helps the play succeed is the simplicity of the design — this is a long, shallow venue, and every scene is staged along a space anchored by the church on Stage Right and Mama Gwen’s rocker Stage Left. Between these two “set pieces” is nothing. Nothing except the people and little events and seemingly trivial details that tell the story.
What REALLY helps the play are the heartfelt performances, particularly by James Gerald Smith and Jimmica Collins as Quincy and Siblie. Their stories captured my sympathies from the start, their friendship a complex portrait of people in need for each other, but (slightly) out-of-synch in how that need should be expressed. I also liked Sharon Mansfield’s open-hearted Mama Gwen and Lemond Hayes’ not-quite-a-clichéd choirmaster. Lydia Frempong and Sundiata Rush fill out the cast with distinctly individual characters, and all blend beautifully as the “congregation,” a character in its own right, distinct from the people who comprise it.
This may exemplify how audiences bring as much into a performance as a cast and crew. My skeptical worldview deeply affected how I reacted to this piece — negatively at the faith-based harm the characters do to each other, rationalizing the faith-based good as “basic human decency.” That it was able to bypass my critical filters and move me is a testament to the writer’s (and performers’) skills at finding a common thread that I could grasp and honor.
Just don’t expect me to shout “Amen,” or to testify outside of this forum.
— Brad Rudy ([email protected] @bk_rudy #EssentialFestival #OldShipOfZion)