The Chump

at Live Bait Theater

By Justin Hayford

I hate to sound like Ralph Reed, but solo performers seem to be a godless bunch. Of course, Western culture has been a relatively godless place for a good century, ever since Darwin and Freud gave God the old one-two, knocking him out of natural history and the human conscience. True, the occasional playwright, from T.S. Eliot to Terrence McNally, has struggled to find the contemporary relevance of a traditional Christian god, but solo performers–when they acknowledge God at all–have tended to recite traditional biblical stories or, more commonly, turn God into a quaint and/or troubling anachronism. With their collective yen for self-revelation, autobiographical monologuists often congratulate themselves on breaking free of the stern, moralistic deity forced upon them in their youth, celebrating their “courage” in constructing gods and goddesses more to their liking, as though putting together a particularly stylish outfit. The deities of pop psychology run rampant onstage, making everyone feel better about everything. But the unfathomable, contradictory god of Christian orthodoxy, before whose “illogical truths” G.K. Chesterton cowered, has left the theater.

Well, perhaps not quite–not so long as Joel Calderon is performing. His one-man show The Chump may sound like ten dozen other coming-of-age monologues you’ve heard or read about in the last year, featuring a sheltered upbringing, rebellious adolescence, destructive self-indulgence, and nascent self-acceptance. But with Calderon there’s one crucial difference: Yahweh is hot on his trail every step of the way. The autocratic Old Testament cuss who put Job through the ringer is now doing a number on Calderon, even as he summons every last bit of strength to break from the joyless strictures of his Pentecostal upbringing. Rather than shrug off a biblical god in favor of a more user-friendly model, Calderon follows in Chesterton’s footsteps, hoping to embrace an austere, traditional god who seems to have forsaken him.

Calderon’s narrative is straightforward. He grew up in a Chicago household of “Pentecostal motherfuckers,” where he was expected to attend church five times a week, refrain from dancing, and listen only to gospel music. But since pop radio sends his soul soaring, he can’t help but transgress, sneaking some Culture Club or Mary Jane Girls onto his turntable in acts of exhilarating iconoclasm. At 18, without a word of farewell from his mortified mother, he packs up his records and heads to New York City with dreams of becoming a disc jockey in a dance club. Sharing a four-bedroom apartment with 11 other people (Calderon’s “bedroom” is a corner of the living room), he quickly scores a job spinning in Manhattan’s hottest hip-hop club, falls in love with his ballerina roommate, and seems ready to take over the world.

He trundles up to his roof one night to thank God for his success. “My life is set, thank you, bro’,” he says in a typically irreverent prayer. As a kind of afterthought, he adds that he sees so many people in the city every day who are much more in need of God’s help than he. “Look after the others,” he says. “I don’t need you anymore.”

It’s a complex moment, at once supremely generous and tragically hubristic. And it seals Calderon’s fate. He tries to continue on his path of self-made good fortune; he is, after all, an exemplar of the American success story, having achieved everything through single-minded determination and hard work. Yet his god roundly punishes him for adhering to the individualistic values our society so reveres. His lover leaves him without explanation, his boss fires him, his roommates kick him out, and he’s left to wander the streets, where he blames his mother for his plight. “You raised me to believe in a god that abandoned me,” he laments to her during a brief phone conversation. Finally, in a moment of horrifying transgression, he looks up at the sky and shouts, “Fuck you!” with such vehemence it seems he could never be offered redemption.

In short, The Chump is a traditional morality tale, as out of date as a horse and carriage. Calderon undergoes a test of faith, and he fails; it’s as simple as that. The resolution of the piece concerns his attempt to come to terms with this failure. But although he’s turned these coming-of-age stories into flashbacks told to an imaginary therapist, Calderon offers no pop-psych equivocations or apologies. He doesn’t spend time trying to justify his actions or convince himself he’s “good enough” or “only human.” Sure, his turning away from God seems a minor offense. After all, he was merely thinking of others; any human jury would acquit. But the standard by which his god judges him is absolute–there are no allowances for extenuating circumstances. For all his hip-hop posturing, Calderon belongs to a bygone era, before ethics were as relative as Einsteinian motion.

This collision between the contemporary and the orthodox is what gives The Chump its volatile edge. But it’s an edge Calderon doesn’t fully exploit: through much of the show’s first half, his performance is curiously noncommital. Compared to the piece’s furious incarnation two years ago (when it was titled Chump Fiction), Calderon seems unengaged. Paradoxically, part of the problem may lie in the utter clarity of the reworked version. Two years ago, stringing together semidisjointed narrative episodes, Calderon had to work overtime to give the evening coherence. He couldn’t quite pull it off, but the effort was captivating. Now the framing device of the therapist allows him to move quickly from one episode to another as well as avoid interminable scene changes. He’s made his job as a performer easier, explaining each step of his journey before taking it, but he ends up investing less in the journey itself.

The problem is resolved during the show’s second half, when Calderon finally achieves the kind of energy that made this work’s debut such a promising mess. During the final section his courageous talent shines brightly, and his unapologetic vision comes clearly into focus. Greatness is another revision or two away, but when it comes, it will be divine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.