Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor’s plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured: Rashaad Hall. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Conor McShane
With the recent controversy surrounding football players kneeling for the national anthem, one particular counterargument has emerged. There are those who would argue that protest has no place in sports, that players are being paid handsomely and should just shut up and do what they’re told. Don’t speak up, don’t make waves. Know your place.
Janine Nabers’ new play WELCOME TO JESUS, receiving its world premiere at American Theater Company, explores this idea through an eerie, Southern Gothic lens. Set in the fictional burg of Hallelujah, Texas, Nabers examines the terrifying history of racial violence that’s well known in the south, but perpetuated in subtler ways throughout our culture as a whole.
Hallelujah’s the kind of town where high school football is at the center of everything, and the undefeated team is trying to rebound after the loss of their star quarterback, Paul Danver Jr., in a freak accident. Also trying to rebound is the Danver family: Dixie (Taylor Blim), cheerleader and baton twirler; Paul Sr. (John Henry Roberts), the town sheriff; and Ma (Stacy Stoltz), a housewife who seems to grieve Paul Jr’s loss most deeply. Also in the mix is Paul Sr.’s other son Mike (Casey Morris), the town screwup and sheriff’s deputy who stumbles upon a mysterious man in the woods, identified to us only as Him (Rashaad Hall). Him seems to be the answer to everyone’s prayers, a natural athlete who easily fills the role of star quarterback and can take them to the state championship they promised Paul Jr.’s family. But not all is as it seems in Hallelujah; despite their assertions that they’re good, God-fearing people, there’s talk of boogeymen, called “spooks” by the locals, and football coach Henderson (Josh Odor) has been acting a little strange lately. The script smartly turns on the dual use of the word “spook,” one that can’t help but remind you that its use around this time of year is problematic.
Structurally, each of WELCOME TO JESUS’ two acts feels like a separate play set within the same town. While the first act introduces us to most of the characters and teases some intriguing mysteries, it isn’t until the end of act 1 and the rest of act 2 that the play’s symbolic elements begin to take shape. The Danver family eagerly takes in the newcomer, and the whole town showers him with praise as long as he continues to win games. But as soon as he begins to tire of football and assert his own willpower, the residents turn on him, labeling him ungrateful and demanding he do what they say. When he continues to resist, things get even darker.
It’s not hard to view this as an analogue to the state of race relations in our country, not just in the south but all over the place. Him is an outsider, a person of color whose presence in the town is tolerated as long as he tows the line and doesn’t make trouble. But “spook” could stand in for any “other,” anyone who is perceived as a threat to the insular community. In one particularly telling moment, Him reaches across Ma in a completely innocent gesture that nevertheless causes Ma to react out of fear. While it’s written off as being due to their size disparity, it’s not hard to pick up on the idea that people of color, particularly men, are often viewed as threatening no matter what they do. The play doesn’t exactly make a novel point—the south’s troubling racial history has been well-documented—but it at least makes its point in a novel way.
Where the play really shines is its technical elements, chiefly Yu Shibagaki’s fantastic set design, with its wall of red objects arranged around a subtle cross and ropes hanging down around the sides of the stage, their presence a chilling reminder of the south’s history of lynchings, even without seeing any nooses. Rachel Levy’s lighting pulls out all the stops to deeply unsettling effect, clashing between total darkness and blinding brightness. Jeffrey Levin’s sound is equally disturbing, distorting disembodied voices and the roar of crowds, seeming to come from all around the theater. Melissa Ng’s costumes and Jamie Karas’ props are beautifully integrated into the overall design, with reds and whites being echoed throughout. Stage manager Katie Klemme also deserves special praise for deftly handling what I can only imagine is a cue-heavy show. The acting, too, is uniformly strong, with Odor’s not-quite-right Coach Henderson being a particularly unsettling highlight. Director and ATC artistic director Will Davis makes great use of the space and some very innovative staging, creating a fully immersive audiovisual experience.
Ultimately, if WELCOME TO JESUS isn’t saying anything particularly new, it still delivers a sobering and spine-tingling evening of theater.
WELCOME TO JESUS runs through December 3rd. For more information visit atcweb.org.