He That Hath Ears to Hear
"People tell me, 'Oh, you write plays. And you're going to be a minister. You should write religious plays!'" Craig Wright lets a crooked smile crease his trim black beard. "I always say, Get behind me, Satan. I can't think of anything worse.
"For a play to be good, for art to be good, there can be no foreordained conclusions," the St. Paul playwright says over coffee at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "The most awful thing has to be possible--you have to believe it could happen. With religious art, you're not worried. You know exactly what they're trying to tell you: You're screwing around and you'd better shape up." Again, the small smile. "I hate that." It's curious, then, that Wright has chosen to publicly perform a 2000-year-old story with a very familiar ending. Will it be as an artist or as a seminary student that he takes the stage at Patrick's Cabaret, a venue known for gay-friendly performance art, intending to recite--sans backdrop, lights, or crib notes--the Revised Standard Version of the Gospel of Mark? And why Mark, for that matter?
The quick answer? "It's short." Very true. After this writer blows the dust off her Bible, she finds that Mark spans 16 chapters--thin, compared with Matthew's daunting 29. A slightly more helpful, if less brief, explanation is that the gospels were an oral tradition before they were written down.
"The minute you start to memorize and say it," reveals Wright, with characteristic vim, "you realize that there are mnemonic patterns in it. Phrases are repeated. I do the 16 chapters in two sets of eight, and if you lay them beside each other, you notice the same plot development. It's very easy to remember. It's a live document, built to be spoken."
But we are still hedging here. Does Wright intend a cultural or a religious event? If the former, how? If the latter, why should most happy heathens care?
The wiry, mockingly self-described "small man" (to my eye, he's around five-foot-six) argues convincingly for each side. More than an answer, what comes clear is Wright's determination to keep a foot in both artistic and Christian realms, without compromising the integrity of either. This is a harder task than Christian pop musicians--merrily selling Jesus with sex muscle--would have it. Wright seems to lurch within a tangle of motives, confessing one moment to a writer's jealousy so deep he can't watch the Academy Awards, and admiring Mark's thick human compassion the next. It's not surprising to learn that he has paid his way through seminary partly by copywriting Joe Boxer ads: He's that sincere and that savvily manipulative.
Wright, age 33, was born in Puerto Rico and raised all over the East Coast and Midwest ("My father married six times," he says. "It kept us moving"). After college stints at St. John's and Moorhead State University, Wright landed at Minneapolis's Children's Theatre as an acting apprentice. There he met Peter Lawton, who in 1987 became his singing and songwriting partner in the emo-pop band the Tropicals. The acoustic duo, known for bright, sensual songs about bicycles, girls and--ahem--that "Drilling Thing," put out a record in 1996.
Meanwhile, the ambitious Wright had started penning plays: He has since won NEA and Jerome playwriting fellowships and seen his plays produced at regional theaters in Philadelphia, Hartford, Milwaukee, and New York, although not in the Twin Cities. Last fall Dramatic Publishing released Molly's Delicious, a frisky work about a naively heroic girl who expresses love outside what Wright calls the "awful binary knot" of nuclear-family marriage.
Given this colorful CV, why the seminary? "I decided to go three years ago," Wright explains patiently, "after I came back from doing a workshop of Molly's Delicious at Hartford Stage Company. When I go out to work on a play, I really get neurotic. I start to feel myself fraying. So I was feeling bad, and I just thought, 'This is driving me nuts, hanging all my self-identification on this concept of myself as a playwright. I need to do something else.' So I thought, 'What have I always wanted to do? Well, I'd like to go to seminary and study about God.'" The rapid flow of words dams up for a second, then hurries on. "My life would be a mess if I was always in the theater. I wouldn't give it up, but I can't do it every day."
Wright has so far bridged his chosen two worlds by leaning on the left leg for a time, then easing over to the right. The usual three years at United Theological Seminary, an ecumenical institution in New Brighton, will take four and a half because of secular projects (not to mention the work of marriage and child-rearing; Wright has a nine-year-old son). The Tropicals hope to release a CD this summer combining Dan Wilson-produced demos with live recordings. Molly's Delicious premiered last year at Philadelphia's Arden Theater, and a few months ago, he traveled to Illinois to see a small-town troupe perform the play. He is intermittently writing another drama about the impossibility of individual redemption--at least as Robin Williams usually embodies it on screen.
To combine art and ministry--to stand balanced between them--is a challenge Wright seems to find at once inviting and fraught with aesthetic peril. Which is perhaps why this first experiment is no original text, but a textual interpretation, and not much of one at that. Wright will wear no costume, depend on no other actor or prop, provide no added drama beyond that of his voice reciting Mark's words from memory. He will introduce the book with a few comments on when it's believed to have been written (it predates Matthew and Luke) and by whom.
"I'll also make it clear that I'm not changing anything," he adds. "A lot of this stuff, when you say it, sounds so normal and natural, or funny, and people think, 'Oh, he must've thrown that in.'"
Lest I imagine that Wright's faithful adherence to the text comes from a lack of insight, he eagerly unveils more theories than I'd ever want to know about symbolic fig trees and some textual controversy called the Markan Secret (don't ask; I did).
What he wants, he declares, is for people to hear the words for themselves: "When you come to the Parables, it says: 'Again, Jesus went out to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables.'" Setting aside his performer voice, Wright says enthusiastically, "The minute he starts to speak to them in metaphors, he's speaking to them across the water. That's a very elegant image: The waves of the water between them becoming the waves of interpretive distance that allow people to hear things the way they want to hear them, to add their own contributions in their hearing. That's what metaphor does: Metaphor invites, it doesn't limit."
Bandying biblical exegesis with Wright, I begin to see how a writer, an artist, could become consumed with what is simply--or not so simply--a very old story. It's his belief that the Judeo-Christian tradition lies in people's creative engagement with 1) the Bible, and 2) the history of previous people's creative engagements with the Bible. Those ancient words themselves, Wright would say, represent an artist's work--many artists' work, in fact. The primary Christian text is a postmodern invention, in that it contains multiple, contradictory viewpoints, no one of which is solely true. The New Testament isn't content with one Gospel's truths about Jesus; it offers four. "We didn't write four constitutions!" Wright jokes.
Then Wright starts to tell me something his son said, and I think, "Ah yes, here's the minister's best friend, the topical, grounding anecdote." Really, though, I'm not feeling preached at. Wright exudes such a contagious intellectual excitement that he never seems like some condescending priest or chummy youth-group counselor. But back to the story: After Wright had explained the origin of the name Minneapolis, his son asked what St. Paul meant. "I told him, 'Well, it's named after the guy who wrote most of the New Testament.' And my son said, 'So you're telling me Paul finished a book that Moses started?' 'Yeah.' 'So we could add more to it if we wanted.' 'Uh huh.' Then he said, 'There probably wouldn't be so many diahs in the new parts.' I looked at him. 'Well, you know, Zedekiah, Jedidiah. It would probably be more like Bob, Steve, Mike.'" Wright flashes that pleased dad look. "I said, 'Good point.'"
The Jesus of Mark is likewise portrayed as someone moved and affected by other people. "He's not sliding through the world in a divine condom," Wright says. Sly eyes wait for my laugh. "I think for some people who are in really dire straits, a savior who's perfect--who can just reach down and pull you up--is quite helpful. And there we have the Jesus of John or Luke. But for a lot of us whose problems have more to do with self-actualization, it's more helpful to think that as we're stumbling around, God is stumbling, too. That it's a journey to become divinity incarnate in human flesh. So when we're confused, and we're learning, we don't have to see that as an aberration or a step off the path. That is the path."
Confusion has been built even into Mark's text, Wright stresses. "There's no argument put forth that isn't immediately tempered by its own opposite. More than telling you what to think, it tends to invite you to teeter on your own, shifting between poles of interpretation. And to have to think about it.
"I'm not saying that this book can be turned into a feel-good message for everybody," Wright advises emphatically; I've complained about this Jesus's harsher extremes, up to and including a promise of eternal damnation for those who doubt his divinity. "You can't agree with everybody. You have to claim some existential ground on this earth. Maybe you don't want to accept the parameters that Christianity offers, but you're going to choose some other parameters. And then it's not so much a question of your being damned by God: If you got an invitation to a party in heaven and thought it was from hell, you just wouldn't show up. But you can't live without choosing, I'll say that."
So, munching our English muffins, we return to the question of choice, and to the man who won't choose between the demands of art and the strictures of the ministry. Wright believes that in theory, his notion of reality is the same whether he's wearing the art beret or the seminary cap. "In each case, I'm working so that people can have fun, can feel more creative and more empowered to have a part in the ongoing work of culture-making," he says.
In practice, though, he suggests the playwright tries to be true to a feeling, a thought--and, I would add, an aesthetic. The sermon writer, meanwhile, must create something true to "the claims of a community--not only in the present, but across time. You can stretch those claims, you can push them, you can use the tradition to challenge the tradition. But you have to be true to your understanding of what the Christian tradition is."
Apparently, then, it's a responsibility to one's message that distinguishes the sermon from the secular song. Later Wright talks about an idea he has for a play about Paul, the Jew who persecuted Christians before Jesus appeared to him on a road, the Christian who saw his vision of Jews and Christians uniting come to naught, the man who died in jail. How do you make peace with the destruction of your beliefs and dreams, asks the dramatist--also a former Jew turned Christian. When you give up one belief for another, or watch a conviction wither for lack of support, does that mean it was a lie? Paul may be a Christian figure, Wright avows, but this play would not bear a Christian message.
"This is a visionary's problem, a human problem, not a Christian problem." I'm not as certain. If what he's really saying is that Christian art doesn't doubt, doesn't despair--well, why shouldn't it? Didn't Wright just argue that, with Mark, the stumbling path was the real path?
Near the end of our talk, Wright mentions how glad he is to be performing Mark at Patrick's Cabaret just before it moves to a new space. In a way, he says, the recital will complete a sort of career trajectory. It was there that he and friend Peter Lawton began the Tropicals and played some of their favorite shows. A few times Wright returned to do long, wandering monologues based on biblical texts--sermons that were true, he says, to nothing but himself.
"Patrick [Scully]'s energy, and by extension that of the people gathered with him, is really humane." He chuckles, as if at an amusing memory. "A lot of the dividing lines that are drawn in life get erased at Patrick's Cabaret."
Craig Wright will bring the Gospel of Mark to Patrick's Cabaret at 7 p.m. March 28; (651) 698-0682.
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