Wednesday, February 17, 2016

jubiracy filho | art matters

Monday was truly a memorable day at Regent College. In addition to the student presentation on The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot that I've already posted, here is a second paper that was given for The Christian Imagination class, as heartfelt and deeply moving as the first.  Jubiracy Filho is from Brazil.

Ten years ago, in Eastern Canada, Ontario. If I were to welcome that time as it arrived, I’d quote Job as I opened the door to it: “what I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me”.

I was living in Toronto with my younger brother Thyago. Those were my early twenties, we were both international undergrads then. And I vividly remember, before leaving our hometown, to have shared my fear with him: that after spending most of the family’s savings, after investing precious time, and precious energy, not without leaving precious opportunities behind just to embrace this extravagant international venture, that it would prove to be, as we were about to complete it, no longer viable; that, against our will, it would ultimately need to be left unfinished. Unresolved.

And it so happened. In our second year, our parents went drastically unable to support, or help us. We had no access whatsoever to student loans; and tuitions for international students were three times higher than standard. Therefore, regardless of our efforts to work – night shifts in 24-hour coffee shops, manual labor in factories and farms, waitering on tables, cleaning toilets, dog-walkings! – we just could not afford to live and study anymore. After much reluctance, and much to my shame and sadness, and the family’s, we decided to simply go back home without our degrees.

So now I was shortly leaving the city, and it dawned on me that I had not enjoyed it! Well, when even the smell of cinnamon buns meant unaffordable luxury, there is only little much you can do to savor the city, really. But suddenly it came to me: a museum! Let’s visit a museum!

So we did. The Art Gallery of Ontario. I was now stepping into the Canadian Impressionism collection, yes, distracted. That’s when, for the very first time, I saw it. Ah, I love impressionism… I love that impressionist painters resolved to paint outdoors, en plein air, in order to recapture true effects of light, to recover colors as they were by nature! Could apples be merely yellow, or the sky whiter than just blue, or rivers, sincerely gray; brown even? Please allow me. I also love it that they used short, seemingly hesitant brush strokes, as if only their delicacy could prevent beauty from crumbling; or only their shyness, along with their togetherness, could present real beauty. In fact, whether they were barns, bridges, golden haystacks or dark rivers, I love to think these were, not one of them, the actual object in their paintings – but only light, and color itself. And if they would paint the same thing in different times of the day, in order to grasp light moving from the East to the West, weren’t they also painting… time? The fleeting shadows of it? Now, I was still contemplating it.

The rather famous, nationally celebrated, perhaps much studied, painting of Tom Thomson. I learnt that it was even printed on Canadian stamps once; and that Thomson, if not others, was not only interested in the wonders of light, but also of other phenomena, like the wind. And when you learn this painting was named “The West Wind”, you immediately respond to its invitation: “look again”. Then you see the waters of the river, being curled by it, and the clouds in the sky, being dragged by it, and the branches of the trees, as though resisting it, and the rocks and the mountains, that will simply not move to it, and you realize Thomson was not merely painting landscape. He was painting the wind. And it did move me.

At the museum shop, I took a very precious twenty-dollar bill, and used half of it to purchase the smallest possible copy of “The West Wind”. Little did I know that this was also Thomson’s last painting; that he died mysteriously, unexpectedly, in the prime of his life and career, leaving it too, unfinished, unresolved. Maybe that explains why I was leaving Canada empty of a degree, but with that copy in my bag, not completely empty.

As I was leaving the museum, I saw an interesting thing by the doors. A large tube, filled to the top with lemon-green buttons, each one containing the slogan: “art matters”. Now that pierced me: does it really? I grabbed one of them and pined it to my backpack. Does art matter? I’ve worn that button quite proudly around Toronto those days, which seems to answer the question a little.

But if art really matters, why would a museum need to affirm it? After all, aren’t the important things evidently important, in a way affirmations as such would only sound needy – which could even make people question the thing’s real importance, as it so desperately needs affirmation?

Or, maybe the question is: is everything that matters so easily and promptly valued as such? After all, aren’t we creatures that need to be constantly reminded of what really matters? For why would I decide to visit a city’s museum, in order to capture the city’s life? And why would I do so only after realizing that that very life was soon to end?

I took the copy home, hung it on the walls of every apartment I lived afterwards, and grieved over my failure for some years. What I dreaded happened indeed; what I feared did arrive… Yet, much to my amazement, so did the joy I was not expecting, and the happiness I had never, ever anticipated.

Ten years in the future, here I am, living in Vancouver, as a Regent College student; not only contemplating “The West Wind”, but actually feeling it on my face, everyday, as if to be reminded of something. That loss and failure, however long and harsh might be their strokes, that they too can mark only but fleeting shadows in time. That even unaccomplished, unresolved and unfinished stories like mine, and maybe yours, unworthy of Light and Color and Wind, that even they can be illuminated, and recovered, and moved altogether, at once, by the three of them combined. Now that matters.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

michael yang, the last days of judas iscariot

Yesterday I was a guest in The Christian Imagination, a course on faith and the arts offered by Regent College. I talked about my story as a theatre artist who's also a Christian, about my aesthetic and values within the art form, the theological significance of various aspects of acting and playwriting, and what it's been like to run a professional theatre. Before I started speaking, one of the students presented a very moving reflection on the impact of seeing The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot four years ago. There couldn't have been a better or more moving introduction to what I had to say - and the remarkable thing is, when he signed up to do his presentation, he didn't know who the guest speaker was going to be.

Here's what Michael had to say.

In April of 2012, the Cultch Theatre in East Van was showcasing this provocative play called: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
 The official synopsis of the play says:
“Halfway between Heaven and Hell, in a place called Hope, history’s most infamous sinner [Judas Iscariot] stands trial. In a court room that’s as much ghetto as gospel, the witnesses are called – Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund decide questions of forgiveness, mercy, and eternal damnation.”
Now, who wouldn’t want to see that?

So, my friends from church and I found out about it, and we knew we had to go.
 Also, you see, there was a lot of controversy around that time about a certain book regarding Heaven and Hell, written by an author whose name rhymed with....Bob Fell.

My friends wanted to check it out because they were curious about God.

I, on the other hand, was going because I was furious at God.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, I went to see that play on hell, because my life felt like hell. In the months prior to the play, a series of incidents involving betrayal, a close friend being assaulted, and a family tragedy...compounded together to shatter my life into bits and pieces.
 This suffering left me questioning what I thought was good and true, who I could trust and rely on, it left me questioning who I was and who God was.
I wasn't sure how I was going to recover from this.

And so we show up to the Cultch.

According to Facebook the exact day was Saturday April 14, 2012. And I’m going to show you a picture to help you visualize the situation.

Yes. That’s me, along with a poster of Judas.

You can say I definitely felt a certain affinity with Judas that day.
Now, Some people, when they go through suffering or crisis––they soothe out their suffering through drinking, drugs, partying––they commemorate their crisis through getting tattoos or buying something ridiculous.
I, God only knows why, decided to triple bleach my hair blonde.
I perhaps dyed my hair to change who I was on the outside, to mask how I felt on the inside. 

So we get there to the Cultch, we watched the play, and...I was never the same again.

Because, intellectually speaking, this play was stimulating.
 For example, it suggested that the greatest sin of Judas was not betrayal, but despair. Quoting the words of Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa says in the play:
MOTHER TERESA: “ the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute mystery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God.”
Hmm Hmm.

And then there’s one of my favourite scenes, which explores God’s potential saving work after we die. In the scene, Satan is called to court (which is situated in purgatory), as a witness, and in the process he sees souls from hell who are now somehow in purgatory. And he is angry because, quote:
SATAN: What? I don’t got enough to contend with?––now I gotta deal with God cruisin’ the barnyards of Hell poaching condemned poultry like some kind of silver-fox-tailed thief in the fuckin’ night??”
As for the aesthetic impact, it did what theatre does best: the liveness of it all.

I could hear the despair in Judas’s voice, as he refused to accept the forgiveness and love of Jesus. I could see the pleading in Jesus’s eyes for Judas to accept that forgiveness and love. I participated, along with my fellow audience members, in gasping at the sacrilegious language of foul-mouthed Saint Monica.

And of course––the words, the words, the words––so well-written and spoken with such fury, intensity, and charm––they left-ringing in our ears long after the play ended.
 All this, best experienced in a live-setting.

Lastly, the emotional impact, is what stood out most to me. The whole play felt like the emotional externalization of my interiors. All the anger, despair, bitterness, questions, and doubts I harboured––were set loose and on display in the theatre. My emotions had names, faces, voices, and they paraded on stage. They took on flesh and blood.

This is perhaps best summed up in the last scene of the play, a monologue by a college professor named Butch Honeywell, played by the brilliant Ron Reed. He is speaking to Judas, and reflecting on the mistake of sleeping with one of his students while married to his wife, and how that started a path down a life of emptiness and regret. He closes the play with these lines:

BUTCH HONEYWELL: Do you know who W.H. Auden was, Mister Iscariot? W. H. Auden was a poet who once said: “God may reduce you on Judgement Day to tears of shame, reciting by heart the poems you would have written, had your life been good” ... She was my poem, Mister Iscariot. Her and the kids. But mostly ... her ... You cashed in silver, Mister Iscariot, but me? Me, I threw away gold ... That’s a fact. That’s a natural fact.

Betrayal. Regret. Throwing away gold.

And you know what the final kicker was?

I saw the play on a Saturday.

And I sometimes wonder if that play...served as a kind of Holy Saturday for me.
 Like Jesus was coming into the depths of my hell, the depths of my catatonic despair and reaching out to me, through this play, through His Real Presence...
 to save me.

It was also this most Holy of Saturdays that prepared me, on an intimate and visceral level, for the Sunday of Resurrection, of new life. Where betrayal and heartache and despair do not have the last word. Where I realized:

I’m going to be okay.

Yes, it feels like hell right now.

Yes, I’m bloodied, beaten, bruised, broken and nearly buried.

But I’m also blessed, being brought back to life, and bursting forth with the vitality of second-chance-ness.

In many ways, experiencing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, brought about the last days of my Old Self.
It felt like a death, but also a rebirth.

It felt like dying, but also––being born again.