Saturday, April 23, 2016

With Faith In Their Lord

Whether or not one embraces his politics, Karl Marx certainly had a way with words. Among his more memorable statements are the following:
  • "The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs."
  • "Medicine heals doubts as well as diseases."
  • "The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain."
  • "Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex, the ugly ones included."
  • "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
Karl Marx (not to be confused with Groucho)
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Marx's views on one particular subject, however, have endeared him to atheists more than any other demographic.
  • "The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion."
  • "Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand."
  • "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."
As a happy, healthy, Jewish homosexual atheist, Marx's views frequently haunt my observations about the politicians I hear as well as the plays and movies I review. In most situations, religion (especially Christianity) is treated as a given or accepted as a default. While nonbelievers often find religion to be patently ludicrous (and religious extremists inherently dangerous), some of us take religion quite seriously.

A sign of the times

What atheists do not do, however, is use religion as a crutch. I doubt you'll ever hear an atheist say "God told me to drown my babies," or something as revolting as "AIDS is God's way of telling homosexuals that they deserve to die."

How does a critic approach dramas in which faith plays a critical role in the lives of its characters ? The same way one accepts the Bible as a book written by men, not God. Or religion as a literary template, rather than fact.

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One of the more curious documentaries screened at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival is Moby Longinotto's look at an all-American family living in a trailer park in Pearl, Mississippi. Although Pearl (population 26,000) sits across the river from poverty-stricken Mississippi's capitol (Jackson), the area is deep in the heart of the Bible Belt.

While many of today's news stories about transgender people focus on the young, the film's protagonist, Jheri Rae Jones, is such a bundle of contradictions that her story could make anyone's head spin. Over the years she has supported herself and her family by working in multiple professions (hairdresser, schoolteacher, cosmetologist, accountant). At 74, she readily admits that stripping may be the only thing she hasn't done. "I'm not real good about swinging around poles," she confesses.

Snapshot of Jerry Jones as a young man

Jheri started out as Jerry Jones, a shy young man who married a woman he met while working in a beauty salon and raised four sons with her. Their oldest child (Brad) was diagnosed with brain damage resulting from a difficult breech birth. Stanley runs a small mobile locksmith company for which Jheri handles the accounting chores. Trevor was still a virgin at the age of 34. His fraternal twin, Trent, is schizophrenic, autistic and lives in a nursing home.

Jheri Rae Jones is the transgender protagonist of The Joneses

Jerry got a divorce in his thirties, was estranged from his children for nearly eight years, and began preoperative treatments in Brussels in order to transition to a woman. After his wife (a Jehovah's Witness) died and no one was available to take care of Brad and Trevor, Jheri suggested that her two grown sons come to live with her in her trailer.

Two of Jheri's sons, Trevor (left) and Brad (right)
now live with her in a trailer park in Pearl, Mississippi

It took time for her boys to get used to calling their father "Jheri" or "Mom" (instead of "Daddy"), but many of the family's old wounds seem to have healed. Trevor (whose hyper-religious mother had always told him that homosexuality was a sin) finally got up the courage to check out some gay dating apps and find a boyfriend, who was soon welcomed into the family.

One segment of the film shows Jheri, Brad, and Trevor attending services at Jackson's Safe Harbor Family Church, where they are welcomed into the congregation by Pastor Amber Kirkendoll. A devout churchgoer who has always relied on her faith to get her through hard times, Jheri also enjoys going to the gym, taking ballroom dancing classes, and cooking for her boys. On many days, her two grandchildren take the school bus to Jheri's trailer park, where they do their homework while waiting for their father to get off from work.

In a strange sort of way, Jheri's reconstituted family is almost as fascinating as that of Big "Edie" Beale and her daughter, Little "Edie" (who were immortalized by the Maysles brothers in their documentary, Grey Gardens and its award-winning adaptation for the musical stage). The big difference is that the Joneses have a grip on reality and are functioning within their surroundings.

Jheri Jones at home in Pearl, Mississippi

A stylish dresser who likes to dance by herself while listening to music, Jheri long agonized about the possibility that she might be rejected by her grandchildren (Nick and Trinity) once they learned about her past. However, Nick came up with a remarkably open-minded approach to the news, boasting that instead of just having a grandma like all the other kids at school, he was lucky to have a "grandma-pa."

Jheri posing for a photo in her trailer

In a recent interview on the San Francisco Film Society's blog, filmmaker Moby Longinotto discussed how his work was helped by an award from the SFFS Documentary Film Fund.
"New platforms to raise funding have made the filmmaking process much easier than just a few years ago. When the recession hit in ’08, suddenly it became a really difficult time for low-budget filmmakers to get projects off the ground. While crowd source sites such as Kickstarter have made many films possible in the past few years (including helping us continue production for The Joneses), new grants have started popping up as well -- like the SFFS Documentary Fund."
Documentary filmmaker Moby Longinotto
"SFFS has been the guiding light for our film. Like lots of low-budget filmmakers out there, right before we got the call that we received the grant, we had sort of reached that low point where it was like 'Hey, how are we actually gonna finish this thing?' We had raised some money on Kickstarter, a bit of private funding, and received another grant, but we felt that there was still so much left to do. Being selected for the grant was a real boost to our morale to keep going and know that our vision was being supported. The day before the call, my producer’s apartment had flooded and her ceiling had caved in, so it was real pandemonium."
Trevor, Jheri, and Brad pose for a family portrait
while enjoying a cruise on Carnival's Elation

As one watches The Joneses, it's fascinating to see Jheri as a benevolent matriarch who hopes that her grandson will carry on the family name. If she could afford to get Trent out of the nursing home, she would love to look after him in her trailer. Whether accompanying Trevor and his boyfriend to an event at a nearby church with a gay-friendly congregation or supervising her sons as they do their household chores, she is a devoted mother of four boys (who was once their father).

Jheri Jones redefines matriarchy in Mississippi

* * * * * * * * *
Following its world premiere at New York's Playwrights Horizons, San Francisco's Magic Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of Mfoniso Udofia's drama, Sojourners, the first installment in a nine-play cycle about the fictional Nigerian Ufot family. The play begins in 1978 with an extremely pregnant Abasiama Ekpeyoung (Katherine Renee Turner) waddling around her Houston apartment in obvious pain as her baby keeps kicking, eager to exit the womb. Dressed in traditional Nigerian garb, she is studying biology at Texas Southern University while on a student visa.

A quiet woman who is exhausted from the heat, humidity, and last stages of pregnancy, Abasiama is waiting for the return of her husband, Ukpong Ekpeyoung (Jarrod Smith), to whom she was wed in an arranged marriage before they traveled together to America. While softly singing to her unborn child in an attempt to calm the kicking fetus, she tries to eat some soup and make a traditional cassava paste using Bisquick.

Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) and Ukpong (Jarrod Smith)
in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

When her husband finally returns, it's obvious that he is eager to assimilate into American culture. Although Ukpong claims to be studying economics, he's spent most of his time in America goofing off, listening to pop music, drinking beer, and even attending a political rally (something which would be inconceivable in Nigeria). Dressed like an American, Ukpong has been using his spare money to buy vinyl recordings by artists like Smokey Robinson. He is much more in love with the sounds of Motown than those coming from his sullen, homesick wife who wishes she could return to her family and the compound where they live in Nigeria.

Even though she is due to give birth soon, Abasiama still shows up for her job every night at a gas station kiosk. On one occasion, she has a run-in with Moxie Willis (Jamella Cross), an illiterate teenage hooker who has the scars to prove that she needs to find a new line of work. During a subsequent encounter, when Abasiama learns that Moxie is homeless and exhausted, she gives the hungry young woman some candy and lets her sleep on the kiosk's floor. As their friendship grows, she encourages Moxie to apply for a job and offers to help her fill out the application form.

Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) is surprised by Moxie
(Jamella Cross) during the graveyard shift at Fiesta in a
scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

After quarreling with her husband and watching him leave their apartment "to go for a walk," Abasiama heads out to work one night. When she goes into labor at the gas station, Moxie tries to help in a moment of desperate comedy and scared ineptitude. Suddenly, a stranger appears carrying an empty gas can. It is Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabiaka), a fellow immigrant studying in the United States who has been struggling to write his doctoral thesis: “Nigerian Immigration: Reconceptualizing a Country.”

Thrilled to meet a woman from Nigeria (and convinced that this is a sign from God), Ufot quickly tries to become the dominant force in Abasiama's life. Despite the fact that she already has an absentee husband of questionable worth, a lonely, scared teenager looking to her for friendship and guidance, and a baby who will soon need her undivided attention, Ufot is determined to make the woman his and his alone.

Moxie (Jamella Cross) and Disciple (Rotimi Agbabiaka) meet for the
first time in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Moxie is not so keen on Ufot's macho moves and tells him so in no uncertain turns. While they continue to visit Abasiama in the hospital, the new mother is trying to figure out what to do when she brings her baby home to her husband. Ufot has already spooked Moxie with his mystical insistence on "carving" a space for her job application to succeed. Despite Ufot's fervid protestations of love, Abasiama is not sure whether or not she even wants him around. Why not? For the first time in her life, she is realizing that she can make choices for herself. A taste of freedom can be intoxicating.

With scenery designed by Erik Flatmo, costumes by Karina Chavarin, sound design by David Molina, and lighting by York Kennedy, director Ryan Guzzo Purcell has done a masterful job of transforming the loneliness and despair shared by Udofia's characters into a radiant theatrical experience. With help from dialect coach Jessica Berman, the three African-American actors are perfectly at ease speaking in Ibibio (even if it is difficult for the audience to understand what they are saying). As Magic Theatre's artistic director, Loretta Greco, explains:
"Sojourners is an original odyssey which paints the stark isolation of what it is to be other in our fine country in the year 1978. It is also a love story whose painfully winning humanity is authentic, specific, and steadfast. Although many of you will be hearing Ibibio and Ibibio accents perhaps for the first time, I feel certain because of this authenticity that you will feel the universal pull within this buoyant first chapter of Mfoniso's cycle -- and lean in. I am truly over the moon with the power, insight, and raw theatricality of this emerging voice as she asks some of the more essential questions of what it is to be human within her thrillingly distinct work. She is a bright, bright light for our field."
Moxie (Jamella Cross)  visits  Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner) in
the hospital in a scene from Sojourners (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

Perhaps the most urgent reason to catch a performance of Sojourners is to witness Rotimi Agbabiaka's searing performance as Disciple Ufot. I first saw this exceptionally gifted actor performing his one-man show ("Homeless") during the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. Each time I have seen him perform since then, I have been bowled over by his versatility, his fierce dramatic commitment, the complexity of his craft, and the white-hot fire he brings to any theatrical venture. This is a man who gives 150% of what he's got to an audience. It is breathtaking to watch him take a stage and own it.

Disciple (Rotimi Agbabiaka) continues his thesis struggle
in a scene from Sojourners (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Performances of Sojourners continue through May 8 at the Magic Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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