Letter to the Editor: Defense of Televangelist play

Emma Durand, Abbey Players

I am the playwright for “You Can’t Spell Faith without AI,” one of the four shows performed at the 24-Hour Play Festival, presented by the Abbey Players on February 11th. When I heard about a letter being written to the editor of the Crier about my show: I was ecstatic. Also, 

I did not expect this letter to praise my show. Instead, I expected just the response it gave, and I would like to clarify a few things and use this platform that this letter gifted me to discuss my show and its meaning. 

First, I would like to expound upon why I wrote this show: I was given two Apples to Apples cards. One said, “Aged.” The other said, “Televangelists.” Thus, my prompt was “aged televangelists,” and I ran with it. I took advantage of my prompt and wrote a satirical, intense show. I planned to shock a primarily Catholic audience, and I used “controversial” methods to get that across. I knew what I was writing. I knew what was offensive or what one would deem “disrespectful.” I was not insensitive while writing this. Every line, every reference, every quote, and every name had a purpose. I was writing a reality check for a society that lives in a Western, monotheistic faith-dominated culture. I was inspired by comedic shows such as The Book of Mormon, Jesus Christ Superstar, Altar Boyz, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, and I’m in Therapy!, amongst many others. However, I was also inspired by darker media, such as The Crucible, Devil All The Time, Midnight Mass, and The Exorcist. These works were considered “sacrilegious” at one point or another. They also have another thing in common: they bring up certain aspects of Christian culture that are real and prevalent in our world. One of the qualities of theatre that I adore is its ability to analyze and discuss all aspects of humanity, and I planned to do just that with my prompt. 

Second, I would like to clarify a few discrepancies provided by this letter to the editor. The two brothers were not priests or monks. This was clarified in the AI (Alex-15) ‘s scan of the two. They are Nimrod and Nigel Cornfoot, televangelists who “preach” Apocrypha and false gospels for discriminatory charities. They use the guise of Brother, followed by other names for Adonai, to give themselves authority in the Christian community. I used these names for Adonai because Christians use them very lightly. The tetragrammaton was also created by non-Jewish people. These characters had no respect for Jewish people, and thus they spoke and gave themselves these names lightly. 

Sometimes, in theatre, we use actual, offensive words for characters who would use them. In Assassins, John Wilkes Booth uses the n-word. In The Laramie Project, many people use the f-slur multiple times. Numerous shows about the holocaust use anti-semitic slurs. Also, when skipping offstage at the show’s end, one of the brothers did not say, “I’m going to start a Church and scam people out of more money.” The brother said, “Come brother, let us scam more people!” because that is what they were doing, and something televangelism has done. This was also an improvised line, but I fully agreed with this ad-lib. It was definitely appropriate for the character. Finally, the “exorcism” scene did include “the power of Christ compels you” but also lines like “spirits, spirits go away, possess this body another day.” Also, The Exorcist theme played in the background, supporting the scene’s ridiculous nature.

These brothers, these characters, have real qualities in Christian culture, but I took it to the extreme for the sake of humor. Some Christians with authority are sexist, pedophiles, or scammers. Some of them are racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, etc. It is a reality we need to acknowledge. The writers of the Bible were sexist if you look at the contextual portrayal of women. I have the privilege of taking TH 199 Special Topics: Women in the Old Testament, where we read into how male authors silenced and used women in the Bible. Authoritative Christians have violated children. This is why we have media such as Doubt: A Parable and Devil All The Time. Televangelists used their platform to fuel the Red Scare, mass hysteria, and discrimination. These are aspects of Western Christian culture that need to be acknowledged. 

I used laughter to keep things light-hearted. Most of the jokes in the show are humorous because of their extremism. We know it’s ridiculous. However, it still happens, and even in the form of comedy, this content helps us recognize these horrible behaviors and motivates us to correct them. I put great care into researching all of the references I made in this show. Also, my actors did a phenomenal job learning such a text-heavy script in less than 12 hours and communicating those references to the best of their ability. I am so proud and thankful for my director and actors’ incredible job in bringing this script to life. A majority group that has such extreme political, societal, and cultural power that has used its influence to harm minorities in the name of “faith” needs to be affronted once in a while. I wrote this script as someone the Christian church discriminated against for her sexuality, faith, appearance, and gender. Yet, I still have some privileges. I cannot comprehend the intense discrimination others may face, but I know it exists. However, I still have faith, and I will always have respect for the Christian community. The material in “You Can’t Spell Faith without AI” references real situations, bigotry, ignorance and discrimination. Censorship of these references enables us to pretend things are perfect or allow a group of people to portray themselves as perfect. It allows us to be ignorant. Media similar to “You Can’t Spell Faith without AI” does not lessen, invalidate or criticize anyone’s faith. 

Whether or not you saw “You Can’t Spell Faith without AI,” my show asks you this: Check your privilege. Laugh at those who believe they are worth more than others. Finally, recognize problematic behavior and help others to correct it, regardless of your identity or social standing.