In the midst of the violence, suffering and fear unleashed in the last week, we seek someone to blame for creating global terror. The face of Abdel- Hamid Abu Oud flashes on screens across the country — the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks that killed at least 129 people. He is 27 years old, a young man smiling broadly in one picture, proudly holding the Koran in the next. Seeing his face and confronting the anger and blame is to see a young man, driven by an extreme belief, who turned almost inexplicably malevolent.
Unfortunately, our society is accustomed to terrorism and to living with the fear of violent extremism. And we are quick to see and react to the fanaticism in others, but there is a hesitancy to see it at home or to recognize the humanity in the faces of distant jihadists and other radicals.
FAITH, a new play by James McLindon making its world premiere in Boulder this week, challenges these stereotypes by bringing fanaticism closer to home, setting the play in the United States and planting the seed of extremism in an ordinary American teenager.
McLindon hopes that audiences are able to relate to the fanaticism in his play, to use the production as an opportunity to recognize it within themselves. Although McLindon says that what happened in Beirut and Paris hasn’t changed the production in any way, he fears it will change the way FAITH is received by audiences.
“One concern that I have is that Americans will be even more likely to see fanaticism in others, but less likely to see it at home, even through there are many examples,” McLindon says. “The assassination of a doctor performing abortions in Buffalo by a Christian with a sniper’s rifle; an attack on a black church in South Carolina by a racist; the people massacred in a Jewish community center in Kansas City by an anti-Semite. It happens in this country a lot, and I think the scale has been smaller often, although not in Oklahoma City. But I think people have a tendency to think that it is something that happens over there and that is occasionally brought home to the United States, like 9/11, from overseas. But we have our home grown fanatics that we need to be aware of.”
The fanatic in FAITH is 13-year-old Simon, a puberty-wrought boy who desperately wants to be a prophet for God. In search of such a biblical experience, Simon seeks out a desert, the Bible’s most popular setting for exaltation, and in short supply in upstate New York. Instead, Simon makes his way to a Wal-Mart parking lot, which provides, to his imagination at least, the closest approximation — a vast, swept and barren place. Here, he kneels in prayer to God, who presents a harbinger to the devotee.
FAITH is a re-imagination of the stigmas of religious fanaticism. McLindon invites his audiences to relate to motivation in the extreme by connecting unreasoning enthusiasm to vocation. Although the word is most often used to mean career, vocation more accurately means a divine call to undertake a certain kind of work, according to its Latin roots.
“I think lots of people are taught about the idea of vocation, the idea that God is calling you to the clergy in one fashion or another,” McLindon says. “It is a very serious thing. If you are born with a vocation and you do not accept it, you will not be happy in life, so kind of high stakes. … That basic impulse to sort out what God intends for you is very common with teenagers and I imagine, with anyone really.”
Boulder is famous for its greatness: among the smartest, most athletic and happiest cities in the country, and we ought to pause to recognize the fanaticism that makes that all possible. That success requires attunement to vocation, a commitment to cultivating a special purpose in life.
Although at first the religiosity of the play seems an odd coupling for the secular community, Pesha Rudnick, the play’s director and co-founder of LOCAL Theater Company producing the play, says the company selected FAITH specifically because of Boulder’s agnostic laurels, hoping the play would spur audiences to re-imagine their own experiences with non-religious martyrdom.
“We chose this play because it is a show that really tackles religion and fanaticism,” Rudnick says. “This is a community that is filled with fanatics, maybe not religious, but entrepreneurs or sports fanatics or food fanatics. We are a really interesting community of extremists. I was intrigued by the psyche of man’s search for meaning in a secular community and how that will land. … I think it is really interesting for parents and for non-religious people to talk about religiosity. It is a conversation about [judging] fanatics versus embracing the fanatics of our own lives.”
This multiplicity of fanaticism is poetically resolved in the relationship between Simon and the actor who plays him, Em Grosland. Grosland is a transgender actor who uses the pronouns they, them and their. Although we all fall somewhere different on the gender spectrum, very few of us would be asked to explain our positioning in a professional interview. But, Grosland insists, bringing it up even, because for them it’s not an optional part of the story. Both Grosland and Simon made a choice to pursue their calling, although in very different ways, and both risked being outcast in doing so.
“It’s weird, because it is absolutely both, as fanaticism is as well I suppose,” Grosland says with a laugh. “I often find it very isolating because there is sort of like a club mentality in gender and in theater. … Often times people are shut down to me because of that. They don’t know what to do with that, they don’t know where to put me. There are actually audition calls that are separated by gender. I feel a little but like I can’t go to either, and that is very, very isolating.
“But it has, first of all, been worth it because I am actually being me, and it’s really nice,” Grosland continues. “I perform better because I am being honest, and I am more in touch with who I am. … But also because it builds community, because I am open about it. People talk to me about it a lot, and we are all encouraged.”
It seems to come easily to Grosland, to subsume their own experiences to a framework of fanaticism, a part of the idea that all greatness stems from an extreme and committed passion. But in the wake of recent events, there must be some obvious and necessary distinction between what drives an act of terror and an act of art.
In talking to McLindon a few days after the Paris attacks and a few days before the opening production, I ask how one can tell the difference.
McLindon laughs and then thinks for a minute before saying, “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you. The research indicates that it is a really fine line, and why some people cross it and some people don’t — I don’t know. It’s not a question I could answer in a play, or at least I don’t. But that’s the question, and I wish I had an answer.”
In the face of tragedy, of global mourning and global fear, there is a tendency to be reactionary and to fight violence with violence. FAITH offers an alternative — an opportunity to be entertained by a consideration of the difference between terror and love, destruction and creation. Leave it to art to ask the unanswerable questions, to bring up the connection between the extremism that leads to greatness and that which leads to something a bit darker.