I am working on a play that is also working on me. I've taken as my source a news clipping from a year ago about a BBC multi-part production called "Son of God." For the series, researchers combined information from skull measurements of dead first-century Jewish males, mosaics, contemporary accounts of social and political life in Palestine, and so on to construct a bust of what Jesus might have looked like. The published picture of the results, of course, looks nothing like our imagined Jesus. This Jesus is swarthy, heavy-set, with short coarse hair and beard, in other words, "just folks," as my friend from Virginia would say.
The setup for the play concerns the team that put the picture together (based on accounts contained in the news stories). The time has come to unveil the picture as part of the series' promotion, and they are just about to go to a press conference to do that (the picture, though, has been circulating in the newspapers for the previous week, as a kind of promotion of the promotion of the show) when the Jesus that appears in their picture appears at their office door, saying to them, "You got it right." What happens next is what is in process now.
In the beginning I sketched out the story of the play (I "storyboard" the scenes in my scripts before I pen dialogue, stage directions, etc.) as something brief and light and somewhat plot-mechanized: the "trick" of the appearing Jesus basically setting up an opportunity for the characters to talk about religious stuff in a way that would appear erudite without necessarily taxing the audience member too much about understanding or belief (sort of like Heather McDonald's a-little-bit-troubled ex-priest in An Almost Holy Picture). In other words, the piece had the conceptual skin of a ten- to fifteen-minute play, something quickly puzzling and intriguing and light-fingered.
But the more I looked at this picture of Jesus, the more it demanded something different — something more marinated. And what was that?
Jesus is one of those forces in our culture that one cannot ignore. Accept or dismiss him, yes — but indifference, no. This picture, in its earth(l)iness, in its de-magnitude, made me hungry in a way all my Catholic upbringing never had — hungry for something of what Jesus must have offered to the rude men and women who threw themselves over to follow him: peace of spirit.
When I'm cultivating a play idea that is not fruiting easily, I find the universe offering me things for consideration and inclusion. Maria-Beatriz has been reading Leonard Boffo's book on St. Francis' prayer for peace, and our discussions about the quiet spirit St. Francis tried to midwife in people have filtered down. I picked up on a book on radical Christian writings at the local used bookstore, something I normally would have passed over. For class I've read, again, Gorki's The Lower Depths and have been impressed in ways I wasn't before with Luka's offer of solace to the dying Anna.
And then there are my own changes in the hopper: embarked on a writing career that at times seems more joke than justified by talent, riddled by doubts about whether anything of what I am trying to do will add up to that proverbial hill of beans, one more chimera in a life pot-shotted by the skeet shooting of fate.
And so, this play is not about Jesus at all but about a hunger for a moment, a lengthened moment that would cover like a comforter, when all slings and arrows would cease, when taking up arms is done.
I find this urge for a place to rest coming upon me more and more these days. It's not simply from the ordinary chaos embedded in living in New York or the special-case chaos of the Iraq war, but it's also from a "YouTube" and "MySpace" chaos, where the urgency for celebrity is so strong it smells like desperation, and an American culture that seems bent on consuming itself, literally and figuratively, into oblivion.
I am also aware that that this urge for a place to rest can also lead to self-absorption and quiescence, making myself my own gated community, with a gated politics to match.
No, the "rest" is not about retreat so much as a need for balance, for a fulcrum upon which can be settled the multitude of sniping dialectics that constitute a life and, for a moment, perhaps even for no longer than the space of an inhale and an exhale, life/my life feels poised and receptive and aware/awake.
Don't know how this will play out in the play — but Act II is always the hardest.