“What is faith? What is forgiveness?”
These were the questions I was met up walking up to the Roberts Theatre to see SpeakEasy’s production of Grand Concourse. Below the text was a stack of post it notes and a cup of pens inviting the audience to share their thoughts. I took a pen and immediately realized I had nothing to write; not because I don’t have opinions but because I’m struggling with my own faith, and my concept of forgiveness is being challenged in many ways.
I braced myself for emotional impact.
I was not ready. I was not prepared to recognize myself and people I know onstage in the portrayals of people struggling with faith, why we give and what we receive, and forgiveness.
WARNING: There may be some spoilers from this point forward. I highly suggest to see the show if you get the chance, its a journey. The show runs through April 1, for more info click here. Continue at your own risk.
The relationship between Emma, a 19-year-old volunteer in a Bronx soup kitchen, and Shelley, the Catholic nun who runs the kitchen, was engaging, human, and challenged the audience in the best way possible. Through both these women, we see that act of giving help is not without its own selfish purpose. Emma seeks out the soup kitchen in order to find a purpose, feel like she is contributing something good to the world as she struggles to find human connection and a sense of self while also suffering from depression. She needs the soup kitchen more than it or its guests need her. Through Emma’s experience, the audience is challenged to think about the selfish ways we seek to give. Often, we donate to charity or volunteer at a shelter under the pretense of giving back to those who are less fortunate, and while that may still be true there is also an underlying selfish need to make ourselves feel better. To get rid of the guilt of privilege, to find a sense of purpose in a crazy world, to find a constant in an ever-changing world, to pad a college application, the list goes on. I would argue that Shelley’s work is also a little selfish. The soup kitchen is a well-rehearsed routine. She comes in every morning, sets the timer on the microwave to force herself to pray, and cooks the same meals day after day. Her work provides her with a sense of purpose and a known element as she struggles with her faith. Does this mean that either of their work is “bad” because they are gaining something from it? No. Should they stop? No. They are still making positive contributions to people’s lives, personally gaining something from that experience is no reason to stop.
Shelley’s relationship with her faith was the most compelling aspect of this play for me. The way the relationship transformed given the circumstances presented in the show kept me fully engaged. I find it interesting that in order to reconnect with faith, she had to leave the Church. From the start of the show, we see that Shelley finds the act of prayer to be an obligation and is trying to get back to a place where that is no longer so. Although she is a nun, she wears every-day causal clothes for most of the play. It isn’t until the end, in a last ditch effort to stay connected to the Church that she wears the traditional costume and habit. When she finds out that Emma lied about having cancer, Shelley forces herself to forgive her. Ultimately, her decision to separate comes from the need to be free of the obligations of faith associated with being a nun. Even though she will no longer be a nun and officially associated with the Catholic Church, I believe her faith will grow stronger because she will be free to explore her faith on her own and reestablish her relationship with God on her own terms. Shelley’s journey forces the audience to question their own relationship with faith and forgiveness and how much of it we do under the pretense of obligation. How often do we forgive because we feel we don’t have another choice? What routines or practices do we follow blindly? Why? Is it bad to do so?
Grand Concourse asks it audience to reflect on their relationships with faith, giving, and forgiveness in a thoughtful manner. If you get the chance, SpeakEasy’s production is wonderful. It has a fantastic cast, and effective, coherent design that creates a space for this world to exist.