March 24, 2009

Notes from the Director

The Language of Beholding
By Eric Harrell, Director of Spinning Into Butter and Chair of the Theatre Department

I hope you had a chance to see our December production of The Glory Man. This inspiring new play told the true story of Clarence Jordan, a little-known hero of the civil rights movement. Utilizing a biblical model of community, he established an interracial farming commune where blacks and whites worked alongside each other in rural Georgia. Their existence was anything but idyllic. The images of burning crosses and Klansmen from the production still linger in my mind. During the run of the show, we hosted some founding members of the commune, now advanced in years, and heard firsthand their accounts of life inside this small enclave of equality in the turbulent, racist South of the 1960s.

Flash forward. It’s 2009. The Civil Rights Act has governed our country for the past forty-five years. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that one in three Americans are from an ethnic minority. In January, we inaugurated our first African-American president. So, where does that leave the “race debate”? Case closed? Or do our more recent efforts to atone for a racist past now allow us to probe more deeply beneath the surface? Christ tells us that outward behaviors are one consideration; matters of the heart are quite another. My mom explained it like this. When you’re weeding a garden you must be sure to pluck out the root, otherwise the weed will just grow back.

I believe the theatre is an ideal environment in which to wrestle with such issues. Through well-crafted storytelling we can be entertained and simultaneously challenged to examine the private feelings and public behaviors which influence the world around us. An unassuming play quietly slips its hand under the chin of its audience and asks us to look squarely in the eye of something worthy of our consideration – a cultural value, a complex relationship or a social injustice. I call this the “language of beholding.” And the theatre speaks it quite eloquently.

Perhaps with Spinning Into Butter, the force with which we find our chins grasped and our gaze re-directed is not so gentle: what happens when we remove the gag of politically correct speech? Do the rules of communication that govern a sensitive discussion of race ultimately foster unity? Or do they conceal harsh truths that must first be unearthed before they can be honestly confronted? How is racism defined in contemporary culture? Where has our continued use of ethnic and racial categorization ultimately brought us? How does the apostle Paul‘s assertion that in Christ “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised…slave or free person” impact our understanding of ethnicity?

Of these questions, Spinning Into Butter asks us to “behold.”

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