catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 15 :: 2010.07.23 — 2010.09.09


The curtain is torn, the closet is open

Play synopsis: David and Jonathan are best friends from childhood. They’ve gone to the same church, acted in all the same plays in high school, and have now been accepted to the same theatre program in Toronto. David admits he no longer believes in God. Jonathan professes that he believes more strongly than he ever has…and that he is gay. Cast: Shadrack Jackman as Jonathan; Henry Fenn-Straatsma as David.

I’m not believing in God to make myself “right” anymore. I’m believing because I want to follow what Christ said, and what He did."


A mere 15 minutes after the final bows were taken, director, playwright, actor, teacher, founder of Broken Open Theatre and epicurean extraordinaire Richard Peters ushered me into his favorite Toronto sushi joint. I was a bit nervous that my silver Sony recorder would somehow taint the conversation with this naturally gregarious man; I didn’t want to cyborgize what I knew would otherwise be an engaging and organic tête-à-tête. “Will my recorder make you feel weird?” I asked. “It’s me…” he smiled, “so it can’t be un-weird.” This self-deprecating humor evidenced itself throughout our time together, proving that not only is Peters a culture-savvy Christian, he is also no moralist driven to teach the world a lesson through the vehicle of performance theatre. When asked if he understood his play in terms of the adage, “art for art’s sake,” or instead as Shavian social critique, Peters deftly answered in the tertium quid: “I believe my calling is that of an artist, so what I’m doing is living out my calling. I have to write; I’m convicted to write because that’s part of my identity as an artist” — a fitting response for a playwright whose latest venture, David and Jonathan, is all about identity.

A sort of bildungsroman for the postmodern age, David and Jonathan is set against a sparsely decorated stage, the few props extant used mainly for symbolic purposes: the wrought iron bistro furniture and paper coffee cups that signal urban living — here Starbucks stands in as the archetypical venue for “real life” conversations, confessional and banal alike; the Molson Canadian bottles that hint to the poor taste and empty coffers of first-year students; and the backpacks, bluebooks and tattered texts that upon glimpsing conjure up memories of late nights spent studying or playing at studying with residence hall cronies. Simple, straightforward and minimally decorated, the set for this show provides a sort of carte blanche background upon which the two characters enact their stories for the audience to experience — and story is what this play is about, insists Peters: “Give me narrative. Give me story. Tell the story well and make it clear.” This is exactly what Peters does in David and Jonathan: explores the narratives of two adolescent boys who struggle to reconcile their identities as spiritual and sexual beings with the Christian weltanschauung handed down to them by their parents and faith community.

Over miso soup and bento boxes, Peters and I delved in to the background of the show, which is one of the two plays (Fester, with playwright and Peters’ former student Kris VanSolen, the other) directed by Peters in the 2010 Toronto Fringe Festival.

H: Your play deals with some blatantly controversial issues, specifically homosexuality and its relationship to the Church.  Can you tell me a little bit about audience reaction to the show thus far?

P:  I didn’t know how they were going to react, which is one of the reasons I had to write it. I always considered, in the back of my mind as I was writing, my most conservative Christian friends and the conservative audiences that I’ve written for before, as well as my friends who are gay. That kind of covered all of my bases as far as the people who would be in the audience, and who this story speaks specifically to. I have no real control over their response, but I wanted to write something that was going to challenge them, and speak truthfully into their experiences and their lives and their worlds.

H: What has the response been?

P: Overwhelmingly positive — so I think maybe it’s not being seen by the people who need to see it. I’ve had a couple of pastors say, “We really need to do this at our church…[but] we could never do this at our church.”

H: Can you talk to me about your experience as a Christian in professional theatre?

P: When I “come out” as a Christian in different theatre circles, I can almost set my watch — within five minutes the conversation is going to broach homosexuality in some way. That becomes the litmus test, because really what they want to know is, are you a hypocrite?

H: Have you ever heard of the play, Seven Passages: The Stories of Gay Christians [written and directed by Calvin College Professor Stephanie Sandberg and based on interviews with over 100 Christian gays and lesbians in the West Michigan area]? If so, did this influence David and Jonathan?

P: Yes — I’ve heard about the play, but I didn’t see it. I have seen the film about the play. For me, [Seven Passages] was a really great starting point to do some theological study on those passages, and to start on unpacking what the arguments are. And for me, [David and Jonathan] is just as much about postmodernism as it is about homosexuality. I mean, homosexuality is the thing that people are going to think of first about the play, because one of the characters is homosexual, but the other important part is he’s a homosexual who is able to stay in the church — but the only reason he’s able to do that is because he’s made the postmodern jump. So he’s living in a postmodern world and is reading the Bible in such a way as to go in with eyes open to cultural biases, linguistic issues and etymology that most people, especially those who are spreading the hate, have no understanding of.

H: Were you intentionally concerned with postmodernism in the way that you chose to structure the play, or in terms of narrative?

P: What I was trying to do as best as I could was to communicate my own journey — my spiritual journey — as I went through theatre school. And in many ways, I am David and I am Jonathan, because I was so close to following in David’s footsteps and saying, forget the church; this is stupid and unworkable and unreal. And the only way that I was able to take the path that Jonathan took is that I was able to make the postmodern jump. That was hard — it didn’t happen fully in university; it happened when I left and got involved in a Christian theatre company here in Toronto [Brookstone Theatre]. And so it wasn’t until really about six or seven years ago that I feel that I fully made the jump into postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it — post-postmodernism. We are in a different place than we were 100 years ago, where we understand faith in terms of faith, not knowledge — belief, not facts — because it’s the stories we tell that dictate the way we live.

H: When you say the “postmodern jump,” is that a term that you coined or is it something from Brian McLaren [author of A New Kind of Christian] or another contemporary Christian author?

P: If it is a term from somewhere else, it is something that I have simply internalized. I think I’ve read every McLaren book — he’s the single most inspirational author for me — so whether he’s used that term I’m not sure.

H: In conjunction with questions about gender and sexuality raised by postmodernism, you chose to write your protagonists as both male and both adolescent. Can you tell me about those choices?

P: Oh — it’s just because it’s me at U of A [Alberta] in the BFA Acting Program. I chose to use two people to fight out the fight that was going on internally for me at that time — maybe because a one-man show of just myself would’ve been too boring!

H: Do you think this could be a play about two young women? Do you think that gender and biological sex — male as opposed to female — play a big role in the way that your play develops?

P: You mean do they have to be guys? Well, for me, I was already quite scared about appropriating a gay voice, and that was something I already had to struggle through. In the read-through, I asked some gay friends to sit in so that I could ask, “Does this ring true to you?” They said, “Well, it’s not like we’re all the same!”

H: So you’re saying that as a male playwright and director, you struggled with appropriating a gay voice, and so didn’t want to appropriate a female voice as well, as it was an experience that you did not feel you could do proper justice to?

P: Exactly.

H: Was race at all a factor in your casting [as Fenn-Straatsma is Caucasian and Jackman is African-American]?

P: Actually, no, although the e-mail correspondence [with a gay Christian who left the church] that originally inspired me to write this story was between myself [a Caucasian], and a man who is black. Casting those roles in that manner was just coincidental.

H: You’re an actor, director, playwright and teacher. How does this inform the way that you wrote and directed the play?

P: I went in writing still not knowing where I stood on the whole issue of homosexuality. I know that the church has dealt abysmally with it, but I didn’t know exactly where I stood theologically. I think I’m coming through that, but for me it was honestly just — you know, this can’t end well [for David or Jonathan] — because one has lost his faith and is now bereft of his community, and the other is going into a community [through seminary] that systematically rejects him, but he is committed to that struggle.

H: Do you think this is a play that could be or should be performed in a high school setting? If so, would you differentiate between public, private and faith-based schools?

P: I’ve always believed that you can get at the universal through the specific. If a story is done well, it should be able to tap into the universal. In that way, each person should be able find him or herself in the story, because it gets at what is true — what it means to be human.

Christian or not, LGBTQ or not, it is hard to deny the truth of these compelling narratives. Near the end of the show, Jackman’s character Jonathan performs a heart-shattering a cappella rendition of the Christian worship song, “Mighty to Save,” for his culminating drama project. Shortly afterward, he tells David that he has decided to abandon theatre for seminary. Jonathan’s heartfelt ardor for God is met by David’s scorn. Although a comfortable (if not ironic) deus ex machina conclusion would be far more palatable for the faint of heart, Peters does not grant us such comfort. Instead, seconds before the stage goes to black our retinas are burned with the final image of David’s fist, high in the air, as he yells “They will crucify you!” to a departing Jonathan. This emotionally tectonic moment between Doubting-Thomas David and Christ-figure Jonathan mirrors the play’s treatment of the dialogue between faith, sexuality, art and art’s most potent muse: uncertainty. If all goes well, Peters hopes to adapt David and Jonathan from a fifty-minute to a ninety-minute show in the next couple of years. We’ll be waiting.

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