The setting for their play is a fictional megachurch where the pastor’s stand on damnation splits the congregation.
But to get a better sense of the look and feel of the modern megachurch, some in the cast and crew of “The Christians” spent a few recent Sundays researching the real thing.
Director Steve Umberger and actor Brian Robinson, who plays the pastor in Lucas Hnath’s provocative drama, filed into an Elevation Church worship service at uptown’s Spirit Square, where they paid particular attention to how Pastor Steven Furtick delivered his on-screen sermon.
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The play’s lighting director, Eric Winkenwerder, looked for ideas at Elevation’s Ballantyne campus, where Furtick preaches in person, as well as at a few other local megachurches: Central Church of God, Christ Lutheran and Forest Hill. He still hopes to make it to Friendship Missionary Baptist and The Park before the curtain rises on “The Christians” in mid-September.
None of these big local churches are going through the kind of schism at the heart of “The Christians,” which is set for its Charlotte debut Sept. 13-Oct. 1 at Booth Playhouse.
But some of what the cast and crew learned during their field trips to Elevation and the other churches could show up in the play.
Robinson, for example, said he hopes to bring a little bit of Elevation Church’s Pastor Furtick to his performance of Pastor Paul, whose opening sermon spurs the action that follows.
“(Furtick) comes across as an everyday guy who’s able to talk to people in a real way. ... Like he and his congregation are on a life journey together and he’s bringing them along,” said Robinson, who was raised a Methodist. “I certainly saw some qualities in how he communicates his message that, hopefully, I will be able to incorporate.”
When it came time to rehearse, still other Charlotte churches offered space – Robinson and the four other actors in the cast practiced their lines at First United Methodist, while the 24 members of the show’s live on-stage choir, most of whom sing at real churches on Sundays, worked on their four songs at Ascension Lutheran.
Since its 2014 debut at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., “The Christians,” which tells the story of a doctrinal split in a modern-day megachurch, has been performed to glowing reviews in cities across the country: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Tx., and others.
But never has there been a production of it in as churchy a town as Charlotte. The city is not only the birthplace of world-famous evangelist Billy Graham and the locale for his museum-like library. It’s also home to hundreds of houses of worship, including multi-site Elevation, one of the fastest growing evangelical churches in America, and St. Matthew in Ballantyne, the biggest Catholic parish in the country.
Former public radio impresario Garrison Keillor was not off by much when he described the city this way in a ditty he wrote for a Charlotte performance of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Charlotte's into perfection,” he sang, “there's a church at every intersection ...”
Given its religious past and present, in other words, Charlotte would seem to be the perfect place to showcase this play by Hnath, the son of a minister (his mom) whose current Broadway hit, “A Doll’s House: Part 2” was showered with Tony award nominations this year.
“For a place that is so religiously affiliated ... it seems to me logical that it should be in Charlotte,” said director Umberger, who grew up attending Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Charlotte. “It seems like it would be an interesting story for people here to hear – which is why we wanted to produce it. It’s a good play, number one, but it also speaks to a very broad audience, particularly here.”
Play airs all sides
“The Christians” opens with a choir singing a Gospel hymn, “God’s Unchanging Hand.” Then Pastor Paul approaches the pulpit, calls on his flock to pray, and shares an epiphany he’s had about salvation and damnation that will divide this “real big church,” as the playwright describes it.
“The premise is: We’re all in this church service – the audience, the whole room,” said Umberger. “I saw the play in Chicago and, when the pastor said ‘Let us pray,’ half of the audience bowed their heads.”
Besides its striking on-stage format – cast members use live hand-held microphones for their public comments as well as their more private ones – “The Christians” also stands apart because playwright Hnath, while compassionate to all his characters, doesn’t take sides as they argue over what it means to be a Christian.
These five characters – the pastor, his wife, the associate pastor, a congregant and a church elder – make the case for virtually all sides in the debate.
“The Christians” is neither an indictment of Christianity nor a pious parade of religious platitudes. That makes it a potential bridge in these polarized times for people of different political and religious stands to meet somewhere in the middle. The play has been the subject of positive articles not only in mainstream publications like the New York Times, but also in Christianity Today, which has a mostly evangelical Christian readership.
“I wanted to do this play because it speaks from a viewpoint of asking questions instead of answering them,” Umberger said. “The playwright does not fall into the trap of deciding for us. I always think that the best that a play can do is create a great debate with the characters that the audience can share. And then allow the audience to project themselves into it to see where they come down.”
In fact, to give Charlotte audiences a chance to speak their own minds, 20-minute “TalkBack”sessions will be held after 12 of the 18 performances – many more than usual for such productions. Audiences will be invited to stay for a discussion with some cast members and various local clergy.
In 1996, when Umberger, founder and artistic director of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre, directed the controversial but award-winning “Angels in America” in Charlotte, some conservative Christians picketed the theater. This time, he hopes Christians – conservative and liberal – will come inside, see the play, and even talk about it with the non-believers who may be sitting beside them.
Said Umberger: “I think there is something in this play that everybody – no matter what they believe or why they believe it – will find compelling.”
Want to go?
“The Christians” will be performed Sept. 13-Oct. 1 in uptown Charlotte’s Booth Playhouse at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130 N. Tryon St.
Tickets are $15-$45.
Notes on the cast and crew
▪ It was another play about religion – “Inherit the Wind,” about the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial – that was a major influence in Brian Robinson’s decision to go into acting.
Robinson, who plays Pastor Paul in “The Christians,” grew up in Dayton, Tenn. – site of the actual Scopes trial that pitted legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow against fundamentalist Christian politician William Jennings Bryan over the issue of evolution.
Robinson, now 53 and based in Flat Rock, N.C., was in high school when a community theater group decided to stage the play in the very courtroom where the trial was held.
“That was a major event in my life,” said Robinson, partly because his father played the role of a minister in the long-ago production.
▪ Playwright Lucas Hnath, who grew up going to an evangelical church in Florida, suggested four specific songs for the choir in “The Christians.”
But the Charlotte show’s music director and its choir will also bring their own experiences at a diverse group of local churches, with their different worship styles, to the production.
Two examples: The play’s musical director, Dareion Malone, is the pianist at Southend Presbyterian, a predominantly African-American church. And Suzanne Newsom, who will sing in the on-stage choir, is a self-described “church girl” who’s a member of the choir at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian, which is mostly white.
Both say their goal is for the music to be so powerful that the audience will sometimes feel like they’ve stumbled into a real church – and a real church drama about splitting over beliefs.
“It is my goal for the audience members to to be confused,” Malone said, “that the energy and power that I want the singers to (convey) is such that people will actually feel like they’re in a church service.”
Charlotte native Newsom said she sees the choir as a collective character akin to a Greek chorus – an idea that appeals to the English teacher side of her. That’s the subject she teaches at the Renaissance School at Olympic High School in southwest Charlotte.
In “The Christians,” she said, playwright Hnath has taken “an ancient genre and an ancient topic and put it in a modern setting.”
And it’s “very appropriate,” Newsom added, that his play has finally made its way to Charlotte, whose nicknames include “The City of Churches.”
“When people move to Charlotte, they’re often asked, ‘Have you found a church home?’ ” Newsom said. “So I am feeling a strong interest about this play from people of lots of different faiths.” Tim Funk