The Short Version: The Holy Ghost People – who are they? Where did they come from (are they aliens or are they human or are they ….)? What is the god they believe in? Who are we to decide? The Speakers might not believe (in any of it) – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to come to terms with it all anyway.
The Review: I have a long and still developing history with non-traditional theater. I still remember the first plays I read in Scott Cummings’ “Dramatic Structure & Theatrical Process” class that forced me to start reconsidering what a play could be – and one of the earliest reviews on this blog, of a Mac Wellman play called Description Beggared, or the Allegory of Whiteness, saw me continuing to grapple with the idea that a playwright can present something that the reader, the director, the cast must then truly translate into a staged event. See, even the strangest things I grew up experiencing (‘bold’ settings of Shakespeare, the occasional dip into Beckett) in the theater paled in comparison – and while I still believe that a traditional narrative structure is the stronger form, some amazing things can come from stranger and more thorny stylistic choices.
Such a play is The Holy Ghost People.
I was skeptical at first, I must admit. There’s a line early on in the play, Scene 7 I believe, where the Speakers (ostensibly ordinary average human beings) say to the Holy Ghost People (these potentially otherworldly and certainly strange human-esque figures): “…you talk like a grad student, the way you dismantle language…” and my first instinct (this, on page 17 of an 70-ish page script) was “oh, man, you’ve set yourself up with that one.” See, I usually don’t go in for that sort of language in whatever I’m reading. Lord knows I struggle with the Blake Butlers of the world – for language must, to my mind, root in something in order to connect with me. Rootless language, no matter how rhetorically beautiful, irritates me. It feels like a sort of peacocking. And I’ll admit that, at first, I though that’s where this play was going.
But shortly after this, after several pages in an ensuing scene of the two groups saying back and forth to one another “we drink from the same water” in some sort of hellish Meisner exercise, some policemen appear on the scene (they don’t reappear in the play, at least not as policemen) and say “we got reports of some weird people being weird.” And all the sudden, the play won me over. Just like that. That single moment of self-awareness on Mr. Young’s part reminded me to not only take this a little less seriously but also it showed me that he isn’t just trying to impress people with his avant-garde linguistic abilities. He’s actually doing something here – and so it was that I found myself reading the play with an eye towards, well, staging. We read novels and see the cinematic versions play across our mind’s eye – why is it so much more difficult to do that with plays? It’s funny, isn’t it? But then, this is why I don’t direct too often: it’s rare that I can read a play and see it before me like I’d want it to be seen.
So color me pleasantly surprised when I looked up from the first reading of this play to find that I’d scribbled notes in the margins of the copy I printed out, thoughts about staging and about the lines and about the concepts – and I then read it again, thinking about the concepts more clearly and interestingly than I had before.
See, this is a play about (to me) religion. Or perhaps more accurately: belief. I am and always have been an atheist – but there are things that I do believe in that defy explanation. And I’ve been called on to defend those things to those who would seek to shoot down my beliefs because they don’t jive with their own. And on both sides in this play – the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers – I saw that happening. A fundamental unwillingness to truly communicate, even as they were communicating. The Holy Ghost People speak of not just the present-day human conception of God (regardless of denomination or delineation) but of science as well as false, falsely believed in. Their god is a different god than the one we understand – and so too is their science. There’s a spaceship, maybe, and there are definitely some things that are different about the Holy Ghost People – but are they just a version of us considering things differently or are they truly other? It’s a question raised and (to my mind) unanswered in the text of the play. The crux is, instead, the debate between the two sides. How they interact. On the one hand, I’m inclined to side with the Speakers: nobody wants to be told that they are wrong, wrong, wrong and that they’ll (essentially) be damned for it. But on the other, the Speakers are the ones who escalate things and who react most impulsively, which doesn’t look too great either. There’s something quite humanely flawed about both sides of the argument here – despite the other obvious differences as laid out in the text (like the fact that the Speakers look like us, pretty much, while the HGP are all in white robes). It’s an impressive effort and one that affords some truly deep writing in addition to the still-to-my-mind-unnecessary rhetorical hoo-ha that colors some of the pages. Of course, that’s just in the writing. You put these words into the mouths of actors and something else entirely might well happen – I guarantee it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. But even that is a fluctuating notion. I’ve read the script yet another time (3 total, for those keeping score at home) and I keep seeing interesting things in it. I don’t know that Mr. Young manages to achieve the full engagement with the ideas here – there’s a lot of good work but I think the play remains a little cool, a little insular. But it has intrigued me immensely as a theatermaker, which might well be the greatest compliment I could give it. I can see a way in which this play is augmented by its staging, a way in which it more fully achieves the potential on the page. And isn’t that the idea, in the end? That a play only fully comes alive when it lands on the stage? (I realize, looking at the Plays Inverse website that they’re all about the reading-experience of the play too. And while I dig this… well, I’m about the doing, too.)
(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – check it out! http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/drew-reviews-holy-ghost-people.html)