“Why in fields that are both devoted to awe and transport, does the norm seem to be an unspoken separation between church and stage?”
– Jonathan Mandell, “Does God Exist On Stage? Theater and Religion”
I don’t often think about God. Which may seem odd, considering that I until I left for college, I attended church every Sunday, was baptized and confirmed, participated in the choir and contemporary music ensemble, was a member of the Youth Group, volunteered with fellow members at a local shelter, held lead roles in the annual Christmas and Easter pageants, and even went on a week-long mission trip to Juarez, Mexico. On top of all this, I attended Catholic school for seven years and also sang in their liturgical music group. But I guess, for me, God was always something I did. A place where I went. And, God was going to that place and doing those things with a family of people I had known all my life. When I left for school and moved away from that family (as well as my actual one), I may have felt some sense of that loss. But I had a new family of friends, a new community to be a part of. I let go of my habits, my practice. And in the end, it didn’t feel like I was missing anything.
I came to generally assume that most of my new friends were in similar situations with their beliefs. I didn’t know anyone who attended any religious services or joined any religious groups in college. However, upon getting to know my friends better freshman year, I learned that many of them identified as Jewish – culturally Jewish, they specified, not spiritually Jewish. This was a totally new idea for me. For a while, I had trouble grasping the concept of separating a culture, which I understood to be based on a religion, from the beliefs of that religion – until I eventually realized, the Western world generally defaults to the assumption of “culturally Christian” (such as those who aren’t spiritual but celebrate Christmas, Easter, etc.). This made everything click.
These Jewish friends are also very passionate about celebrating and practicing the traditions of their culture, which does include religious traditions like Passover Seder, Chanukah, and prayers and rituals on other holy days in the calendar. There have been a few times when my friends have invited me into these traditions. Generally, however, I found myself highly uncomfortable with the idea. Though my friends were very accepting of my participation (given that I was respectful), the idea of joining them when I was not a “believer” felt quite wrong to me – like a kind of religious tourism. Though I was assured otherwise, I still felt that I would be disingenuous and therefore disrespectful to the sanctity of the tradition.
Interestingly, what I thought of as “religious tourism”— which can much more appropriately and accurately be termed “religious exploration”—is just what is portrayed in God Box. This one-woman show depicts a Jewish mother who discovers that her daughter, who has just passed away in a car accident, had diverged from her Jewish upbringing over the past few years and sought alternative options in faith. She realizes this when she happens upon a box in her daughter’s apartment – labelled “GOD BOX” – which is filled with personal items from different religious sects, such as a Bible with a personalized dedication, a crystal on a string, a trowel with an inscription about a “goddess,” and others. Gloria, the mother, decides to essentially retrace her daughter’s spiritual path by investigating the origins of each of the items, and speaking with a member of the religious group to which each corresponded. In doing so, Gloria interacts with people of incredibly diverse faiths; apparently, her daughter had explored everything from Christianity and Islam to Earth-goddess worship and something I have parsed to be David Icke’s Babylonian-reptilian philosophy of spirituality and human origin.
Towards the end of the play, Gloria is visiting with a man of Middle-Eastern heritage, Irish upbringing, and Islamic faith, whom she has just learned was her daughter’s fiancé. He speaks lovingly of the way Gloria’s daughter committed so completely to each religion that she tried, investing more fully than some who had been practicing for years. He fondly remarks that she was baptized after spending only three days in church (though she later moved on to pursue different faiths). The spiritual leaders each welcomed her with open arms, invited her to participate, tried to help her connect with what she was seeking, and gave her their best wishes when she felt it was better for her to move on. This practice didn’t sound wrong or disingenuous to me, but rather like a wholehearted attempt connect with a possible spiritual path. It made me ask myself, why did I feel so uncomfortable about the idea of participating in another religion’s practice? This character had done so with almost a dozen faiths!
It was intriguing to see a play focused on religion that was written and performed by a theatre artist in my own age group. Antonia Lassar developed the play as an undergrad at Boston University, meaning she was about my age and in a similar place in her life when writing it. Though most of my friends and I inhabit a relatively secular mindset, it was clearly very important to Antonia to investigate her religious beliefs at this time. She says in her program note that “though I had been raised a Jew, I had decided to explore other paths,” and describes the play as “a letter of thanks” to her mother for supporting her. This play serves as a reminder to me that although my connection to my own religion isn’t strong, a connection exists nonetheless. As Catherine Trieschmann notes in her 2012 essay “On Theater and Religion; or, Disappointing Mother,” “Whether religious or not, we all belong to tribes of one sort or the other—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Gay, Feminist, African American, Asian American, Latino, New Englander, Midwesterner, Southerner, Southern Latino Gay Feminist.” Whatever the power our relationship to our tribe(s) might have in our lives, it feels important to recognize and reflect on that relationship as a part of our makeup, our history. These are the things that shape us, whether it be in, or away from, their image.
I found God Box to be a warm, funny, and insightful work. Antonia Lassar embodies the play’s different characters in a very full, authentic way that imbues them with the care and consideration that was surely a major motivation for her crafting of the work. Though the play felt very round – by which I mean, complete, sound, well-developed, and with a clear arc—it still had the ability to lightly turn and surprise me. Though Antonia has surely performed the piece many, many times over a number of years, I watched her characters make discoveries that felt entirely fresh, and experience heartbreak that seemed new, sincere, and very touching. It was altogether a lovely experience, and made me think about a part of myself on which I don’t often reflect.
 Trieschmann, Catherine. “On Theater and Religion; or, Disappointing Mother.” HowlRound. HowlRound.com and Emerson College, 11 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
Mandell, Jonathan. “Does God Exist On Stage? Theater and Religion.”HowlRound. HowlRound.com and Emerson College, 23 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
This performance of God Box was on April 15,2015 as part of New Repertory Theatre’s 2014-15 “Next Rep Black Box Festival.” Written and performed by Antonia Lassar, directed by Christine Hamel. For further information: http://www.newrep.org/productions/god-box/