“Church is not a country club for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.” So goes the shrewd advice/admonition given to the Reverend Scott at the conclusion of Joyce Sylvester’s pseudo-morality play, Freeda Peoples, now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.
The moment the line is uttered, approving murmurs reverberate in the audience. We know good dialogue and clever insight when it’s presented. We also know that not all of Freeda Peoples lives up to that moment. What Sylvester has given us is a show with honorable intentions, a point of view, some tough subjects, a couple of laughs and the chance to check ourselves against our worst instincts. However, Freeda Peoples is also a show overstuffed with drama, twists and clunky resolutions, making it difficult at times to either sit back and enjoy or lean in a learn.
The story takes place behind the scenes of a failing church (set design by James V. Thomas). But while congregants are being lost, donations are down and there isn’t enough money to fix a leak, the real sickness in this holy space is the judgment being leveled and the secrets being kept by the people charged with running the place. If the truth shall set you free, then these folks are bound in chains.
That all starts to change when Freeda Peoples (Callina Anderson) shows up to church one day. Dressed more for the club than for Sunday service, she feels judged when she makes her way up to the altar and she’s having none of it. “The Reverend tells us to come as we are,” she complains to the conservative and tut-tutting Sister Ann (Joyce Anastasia Murray) after service in the church offices. Why should how she dresses make her any less in the eyes of God?
Sylvester imbues Freeda with a healthy amount of respectful sass and smarts and we settle in for a church morals tug of war. But just when we thought realism was the genre of the evening, Freeda opens a pocket watch she wears on her wrist, we hear the tinkly music that lets us know something otherworldly is happening, and suddenly Sister Ann is spilling her darkest and most disturbing secrets. It’s a jarring shift in tone, rushed by both Sylvester’s writing and Eileen J. Morris’ direction, and it leaves us with little of the horror or empathy we should feel in this moment.
The same is true when Elder Jones (Roc Living) confesses his heart-breaking secrets to fellow church staff member Deacon Beasley (Byron Jacquet). Only this time it’s like a ten-car pileup of unimaginable tragedies. Just when you thought Sister Ann’s secret was the worst – along comes Deacon Beasley. It’s a lot of a lot for one church, let alone one play.
Sylvester redeems the melodrama somewhat by positioning these secrets as the reasons for her characters judgy nature. Sister Ann is uptight for a reason and Deacon Beasley may be angrily insubordinate, resentful of the Reverend and a plain horrible Associate Pastor compared to the keen Deacon Lewis (Shane Warren Jones), but hey, the man’s been through a lot. Ours is not to judge, even if these characters do to a fault.
Not all of Freeda Peoples visits to the church offices end in tragic stories. P.S. by now you should get the play on her name….think Free Da Peoples….like a freedom march saint name said with raised fists. Sometimes Freeda’s tinkly watch trick yields truth-telling comedy gold, as is the case with Reverend Scott (Jason Carmichael) and his wife Reba (Delali Potakey). A raring fight that addresses female sexual frustration, the Mars/Venus gender divide, poor communication and potential divorce but ends with joyful sex on a desk, has everyone laughing. It’s here that Sylvester’s writing hits it mark, showing us how quick judgment and holding back the truth not only hurts others but equally undermines our own well-being.
You’d think ticking off tragedy and comedy in one play would be enough, but Sylvester goes not one, but two steps further, tucking in a couple modern or at least more modernly concerning issues to consider, namely sexual harassment and sexual orientation. Kudos must be paid for addressing these important subjects, especially in a church-themed dramedy. It will do audiences well to note, however, that this is a play that takes place in 2003, before the #MeToo movement and prior to acceptance of the LGBTQ community in churches, a fight that is still being waged.
So yes, the woman who has her buttocks incessantly caressed by a Church staffer is initially not believed or ever apologized to. And the brave character who comes out in the play is the brunt of a couple of easy laughs as first reactions are registered and recoils take place.
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Sylvester does a much better job dealing with the gay issue that she does the harassment. Sure she encourages us to laugh as one man winces in repulsion at the news that someone he considered a friend is gay. She even pushes the stereotype too far by making the newly out man confess his love to that friend (As I said, it’s a lot of drama for one small church).
In the end, the play’s theme of judgment and truth win out. Well, kinda. On the one hand, Sylvester allows her gay character to question the church’s love thy brother clause. On the other hand, let’s once again refer to the country club/sinners line delivered to the Reverend meant to help him accept the less than perfect members of his flock. “Church is a hospital for sinners.” Not exactly a warm fuzzy for gay Christians.
But Freeda Peoples was never meant to be a progressive or revolutionary play. This is a show about judgment and soft-ish landing resolution. If not by our hand, then by a higher power. That said, from an in your face sexual orientation nature, this isn’t a typical Ensemble show. Straight, Gay, consensual and violent sex, this narrative addresses it all. And perhaps that alone is revolutionary enough to warrant our praise.
Freeda Peoples continues through April 14 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit ensemblehouston.com. $23-$50.