If you want a sense of what Janine Nabers‘s Welcome to Jesus aspires to be—its ideal Platonic form—take a look at the Jordan Peele movie Get Out. The two productions have an awful lot in common—except that, where Get Out is a nasty-great piece of satire, there’s not much reason to come to Jesus, running now at American Theater Company.
Both Get Out and Jesus are the work of African-American artists interested in the weird doubleness of white racist attitudes toward black people—a profound, often murderous contempt coupled with a superstitious awe of their presumed physical or spiritual gifts. (It’s apparently part of the pathology. Jews get similar treatment from anti-Semites: we’re vermin to them, but smart vermin.) Both shows, also, deploy horror-genre tropes to expose and ridicule those attitudes.
In Get Out, black photographer Chris Washington accompanies his rich white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, home to meet her family, only to find that the highly accomplished Armitages maintain a secret side trade in immortality, transferring the brains of dying friends and relatives into the healthy young bodies of Rose’s uniformly black lovers. Chris, of course, is in line to be the next body donor.
Jesus takes a different—though, really, not that different—tack. Its white folks are rural Texans deeply immersed in the culture of football and fundamentalism (what Nabers, in her script and elsewhere, calls “Christian Supremacy”). No one in the small town of Hallelujah, Texas, is more saturated with said culture than Sheriff Paul Danver Sr. and his family. In fact, the younger of his two sons, Paul Jr., was a star quarterback until his recent death in a road accident. Now the Danvers are trying to weather not only the loss of their boy but the probable surrender of the state championship he was sure to bring them. Not to mention a third trauma: the Danver’s surviving son—a can’t-walk-and-chew-gum would-be deputy sheriff all too aptly nicknamed Skip—was driving the pickup in which Junior was killed.
Out of the woods and into this misery walks Him (yes, that’s as much of a name as he gets), a mysterious black teen who, it happens, can throw a football hard, far, and accurately. Somehow all known league participation rules get waived, along with anything resembling official procedures they may have in Texas regarding the sudden appearance of nameless minors, and Him becomes the new Paul Jr.
Him shows up at just about exactly the halfway mark in Welcome to Jesus, and the scene in which he’s introduced neatly summarizes the fear/awe paradox of white racism: Surprised by Him in a dark clearing, Skip reacts hysterically at first, believing the hoodied figure is a “spook”—the double entendre very much in play. Yet as soon as Skip sees what the figure can do with a pigskin (never mind how), he stops cringing and turns positively reverential. Makes you wonder how George Zimmerman might’ve reacted if Trayvon Martin had only had the foresight to carry some sports equipment with him on February 28, 2012.
The entire play up to that point is an extended illustration of the dysfunction cum depravity wrought by what Nabers hopes we’ll see as the benighted ways of the citizens of Hallelujah. Ma Danver, dead Junior’s mom, has retreated into Jesus and hallucination. His teen sister, Dixie, attributes her baton-twirling slump to God’s punishment. Sheriff Paul dismembers dead spooks when he isn’t berating Skip, whose comic incompetence knows no bounds. Even the local football coach has an episode of something resembling voodoo zombification. All of which leads to the prime reasons for Jesus’s failure: While Get Out gives us Chris Washington to identify with and lets us be charmed by the Armitages until their true, um, colors come out, Nabers treats all her white characters as symbols and her lone black one as a cypher, a trigger. Peele has a narrative with a point; Nabers has nothing but a point. Add to that lots of loose ends, opaque passages, and a Shirley Jacksonesque ending that even Shirley Jackson would find heavy-handed and you’ve got a very nearly insufferable evening in the theater.
Director Will Davis has done exciting work since taking over as artistic director at American Theater Company last year, including a beautifully stylized reimagining of William Inge’s Picnic. But here stylization only adds to the overall murk—literally as well as figuratively, insofar as a great deal of Jesus takes place in the dark. There’s some fun and a little horror in the play, but far from enough of either. v