Best not come to Je­sus

Chicago Sun-Times - - SUN-TIME AGENDA - By TONY ADLER @ taadler

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 ba­ton­twirling 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 WEL­COME TO JE­SUS Through 12/ 3: Thu- Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Amer­i­can The­ater Com­pany, 1909 W. By­ron, 773409- 4125, atcweb. org, $ 38.


Tay­lor Blim, John Henry Roberts, and Casey Mor­ris

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