Staging Hurt and Hope

Theater ought to show us the world in a way that lets us see the place we live as if we were seeing it for the first time. Instead of seeing a heartwarming comedy about mistaken identity and comic hijinks or a modern piece that mirrors how absurd and nonsensical life in the modern world is, imagine going to the theatre to see a clear picture of how terribly broken and twisted and tragic the world can be at its worst — and also how beautiful, compassionate and nurturing the world can be at its most grace-filled.

Albany Park Theater Project (APTP) does this with their recent revival of God’s Work which they premiered in 2006. In one amazing play, they manage to show the audience everything that is broken about life here on earth, and everything that is beautiful about this world as well.

The story, like all APTP work, is from an oral history collected in their diverse Chicago neighborhood. It is, as we like to say, based on a true story. That story is about a girl named Rachel (Maidenwena Alba), who is born into a horribly abusive family. She and her many siblings live in a concrete-floored basement with cracked walls, a single light bulb for illumination and a tiny window. They care for the younger ones themselves. Their father (Vincent Merideth) uses a twisted parody of Christianity to dominate his wife and rule his children through terror. The children must periodically report on each other’s sins, and receive abusive and cruel punishments in return. (Instead of dramatizing the abuse, APTP represents it by having the father use a paintbrush to paint blue and red swaths on the children, who respond with facial expressions and vocalizations that show how much it hurts, and how hard they are trying not to show it. It is an incredibly powerful way to connect the audience to the pain.) Rachel’s mom (Kyra Mae Robinson) is so intimidated and demolished by her husband that she can show no love to her children. Rachel grows up surrounded by siblings, but without any sign of parental love.

And yet, she has memories of being cared for and loved by a mom and dad. The memories are fragmentary and hazy; in the production, the memories are represented by a man and a woman loving a faceless puppet of an infant. These memories seem to sustain her through frantic Bible verse memorization — the father would give the children a time limit — with the clear threat of punishment if they did not learn the verses — being deprived of food, and never seeing or touching her mom.

The turning point comes when Caleb (Kito Espino), the oldest boy, fights back against his father and turns his father’s own words against him: “It is not enough to know what you have done wrong, you must also feel what you have done wrong.” When the father leaves, though the basement and the upstairs kitchen are unchanged physically (including chains on the refrigerator and paintbrushes on pegboard on the walls), the place changes when the mother calls the children up from the basement and shares a loaf of bread with them, which they devour eagerly, in a scene that looks a lot like a sacramental shared meal.

Shortly after that, the couple from Rachel’s dreams, who turn out to be Rachel’s mother’s sister and brother-in-law, come to talk with Rachel’s mom. Since the mom cannot possibly take care of all of the children (there are sixteen of them) and since they took care of Rachel before when the father left for a time (explaining Rachel’s fragmentary memories), they offer to take Rachel back. The mother agrees.

The final scene shows them at home with Rachel, clearly delighted to have her with them. They show her the pictures they saved from the when she stayed with them as an infant, the videos they took — and then they bring her to the bathtub. She is wearing a white shift, but we can see that her legs, face and arms are still coated with red and blue paint. Her new mom and dad help her into the bathtub and, using sponges, they wash away the bruises and blood until her arms and legs and face are clean. It is a scene that recalls baptism, but it is much less solemn and more playful than that, as Rachel splashes her new parents, and they splash her back. In this final scene, we are reminded that, although our world has basements and pain and starvation and abuse, it is also a world that has grace and caring parents and redemption and genuine love.

There is more to the story, of course, but what was so amazing about this play is that it really wasn’t about this one story that was factually true. Instead, I would argue that God’s Work is about the much larger story of the world we live in. This is the planet we call home — with all of its human trafficking, violence toward each other, child prostitution, genocide, war, unjust imprisonment, starvation and people using religion to subjugate, intimidate and abuse those weaker than them. God’s Work also shows us the other side of the world we live in, with moments of share bread, of hope and imagination in the darkest basement, of healing and cleansing and enfolding, of love and nurture and amazing second chances. When you start seeing the play, you think that the title refers ironically to the fact that the father believes he does God’s work in the way he punishes and belittles his family. In the end, though, you realize that God’s work is the work of washing the bleeding and bruises and pain away and wrapping his children in a warm robe and loving arms and giving them hope.

The show closes on April 19, before you will read this, and I have no idea if APTP ever intends to publish the script (though I am hopeful they will). But if you are ever in Chicago, look them up. Even if you don’t get a chance to see God’s Work, any play they produce will we well worth seeing. Their plays take a long time to write, choreograph and rehearse, but the wait is worth it. The redemptive theme in the plays they produce mirrors the redemptive quality that the APTP family has in the lives of its members. This is the point in the review when I tell you that all of the actors in this, the best play that I think I have ever seen, are high school students. Their dramatic skill easily matches the seasoned actors on any other Chicago stage you care to pick. APTP provides its actors with the chance to go to college, to learn how art can transform a community and gives them another family to be a part of. Directors David Feiner, Stephanie Paul, Maggie Popadiak and Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez are the best kind of teachers.

Want to understand the place you live in? Want to get a picture of the planet Earth in all its unspeakable horror and all its breathtaking grace-filled beauty? Want to see what theater at its best can do to change your life? Come see an APTP show. Then go back to the place where you live and make something that is that good.