Liturgical seasons bring my life order: In them, as well as the growing seasons of Minnesota, I re-enact the drama of life and death. And good drama, like good theology, implies the existential question. At its best each—theater and theology—portrays the struggle for ultimate meaning.
A brilliant example of a play as context for existential questioning is the acclaimed Broadway musical Rent. A beautiful and tragic tale of the community that develops against all odds within a rugged urban neighborhood, Rent uplifts the audience with a sense of hope in the face of hopelessness, of death’s sting displaced by love’s embrace.
Rent tells the story of a year in the life of a circle of people who are tied together by relationships with current or former roommates in a dilapidating apartment building. The cast of characters, which reminds me of the residents of a Catholic Worker house, shares with us "525,600 minutes" (the refrain of "Seasons of Love," the most well-known of the show’s tunes) of their lives.
Mark is a filmmaker whose girlfriend, performance artist Maureen, recently dumped him for Joanne. Roger, whose girlfriend had slit her wrists when she found out that they both were HIV positive, has since been a hermit trying to write his own guitar anthem. Tom Collins is a computer wizard who slags MIT’s computer lab by inserting on all computer screens the message, "Actual Reality—Act Up! Fight AIDS!" Benny married up, left the apartment, bought the building, planned to have it rehabbed...and wants to collect back rent from his tenant-friends.
Angel is a drag queen who offers assistance to Tom Collins after he is mugged in front of the building on Christmas Eve. Mimi, a dancer and a junkie, lives in an apartment in the building and brings Roger out of his depression. Various other street people from the tent city next door make up the chorus.
Rarely has theater been more moving: When Angel—the character who continually reminds everyone else of their community—succumbs to illness in a very spiritually moving scene, every person around me, including my daughter Korla, went searching for something to dry their eyes. The superb score—the ensemble numbers are some of the most complex and compelling I’ve ever heard—re-enforces dramatic action, and the juxtaposition of humor with tragedy allows the full range of emoting.
ONE RECURRING theme nagged at my well-defined theological perspective. In "Life Support," the ensemble—at this point an AIDS support group—sings, "No other road/no other way/no day but today....There’s only us/there’s only this...." The activist in me cries, No, we need to carry the past and future in our perspective, not just the moment. In the moment we can too often ignore the needs around us, I fear.
But fear is in fact the point of this. The support group exists to remind people to live in the moment, because the other choice for people with terminal illness is to die before they are dead. And Paul, the leader of the support group, constantly reminds other group members that they said they feel fine now, even if they fear tomorrow.
In the next song, Mimi returns to this refrain: "There’s only us/there’s only this/forget regret/or life is yours to miss." Perhaps this tempers the activist’s tendency to miss the glories of life—the changing of the seasons, for instance—when so bound up in changing the injustices. We can become poor stewards of the gift of life.
As I recognized this, I realized that "rent" is an allusion to impermanence. "Everything is rent," sings the ensemble, and I am reminded that we are to bind up our treasures in the stability of heaven, not in the impermanent here and now.
Only love can exist in the face of this impermanence. "Seasons of Love" haunts us with the question of how we measure a year. Is it "in daylights—in sunsets/in midnights—in cups of coffee/in inches—in miles/in laughter—in strife"? The song suggests, "How about love? Measure in love."
Writer Jonathan Larson, who died of an aneurysm following the final dress rehearsal, seemed to have an understanding of the gospel’s radicality, contrasting the plight of the poor and Jesus’ preference for these same people with the celebration of Christmas. And, as the last sentence of the CD book states: "Celebrating the wonder of life’s terrible uncertainty, the community re-affirms love as the strongest force we know, acknowledging there is always, ‘No day but today.’"
The touring group that visited Minneapolis will be in Washington, D.C., and Chicago yet this year. And a new tour is beginning in Los Angeles soon. If you live nearby, plan a trip. The language may be considered objectionable, and some may not want to see women kissing or a character in drag, but this is a guaranteed moving experience.
From Screen to Video
Speaking of the Catholic Worker (way above), Paulist Pictures, producers of the powerful Romero, is releasing on video Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, which was in theaters last year. It should be available in video stores on September 16.
Entertaining Angels (see "Between Dorothy and God," September-October 1996) stars Moira Kelly as Dorothy Day and Martin Sheen as Peter Maurin. It is produced by Ellwood "Bud" Keiser, and directed by ER’s John Wells. Mike Rhodes wrote the screenplay.
The video will be available for purchase through Paulist Press in late November. For more information, call Paulist Press at (800) 215-1903.