The Rogers State University theatre department opened its season in early October with an original one-woman show, An Evangelist Drowns, written and directed by Dr. Gregory J. Thompson, head of the English and Humanities department at the university.
An Evangelist Drowns is the story of famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who, in the 1920s and 30s earned national and international notoriety as a Pentecostal minister whose sermons were like Hollywood performances and met with large audiences from all over the U.S. and Canada.
Instead of describing her career as an evangelist, though, Thompson has written a play that delves into the woman's personal--namely, love--life, one that contrasts how she is loved by her evangelical followers to the love she lacks in her personal life. Thompson did an extensive amount of research into the woman's life for his doctoral dissertation at Florida State University.
"I've always been interested in her as a cultural icon," Thompson said. "I have degrees in theatre, religion and interdisciplinary humanities, so naturally, I've always had an interest in areas where religion, performance and pop culture intersect."
The play stars 21-year-old Mariah Owen as Aimee Semple McPherson, telling her own version of her life the last night she is living. When I saw the show, it began with a slideshow of photos of the actual McPherson, who died of a drug overdose (thought to be accidental) in 1944.
The play's opening is a little jarring. When Owen enters the stage, she spends an unnecessary length of time before beginning to speak. I don't think the monologue needs to begin as soon as the actor enters the stage, but Owen's time spent gazing into a mirror and plucking petals off of a rose seemed entirely too long and without much direction.
When she finally did begin speaking, excitedly and almost rushed, her voice seemed so disconnected from her demeanor in the beginning that the first 15 minutes were rather disconcerting.
Owen makes up for it, though, as her performance continues, as she tells the story of McPherson's famous disappearance in 1926 on Venice Beach, when she disappeared and was presumed dead until stumbling out of the Mexican desert 35 days later.
She claimed to have been kidnapped but was later found out she staged her disappearance to run away with her lover. As Owen tells her story, you gain a sense of understanding and sympathy for the woman. By this point in her career, her church--and she felt, her life--were being controlled by others and she just wanted to escape.
She had been married three times, divorced twice and was estranged from her daughter and mother. From the beginning, you see McPherson, not as a holier-than-thou evangelist type, but as a person--a flawed, feeling human being.
In two acts, Owen describes McPherson's first introduction to Pentecostalism, at a revival at 17. There she met Irish minister Robert Semple, with whom she fell madly in love and who introduced her to the religion. After a six-month courtship they were married, but he died two years later of dysentery while working as a missionary in China. Shortly thereafter, McPherson gave birth to a daughter, Roberta.
The story continues with two more failed marriages, a string of affairs with lovers she could never have a future with and an increasingly popular evangelical following.
For the most part, Owen tells the story as though you'd believe McPherson herself would tell it. It seems difficult, though, for the young actress to maintain the demeanor of a 54-year-old woman.
At times she is convincing, but it's not very consistent. One moment you believe she is the woman she claims to be and the next you are reminded she is a student portraying a character.
She seems especially young when talking about the men in her life. If this shift in attitude is intentional, a means to exemplify McPherson's longing to be loved, then it is well played. But because the performance is inconsistent throughout, it's hard to tell if this shift is intentional or not.
After seeing the show I wanted to research McPherson's life even more, and I did, finding basically the same information that was portrayed in An Evangelist Drowns. However, the woman was so much more real to me as I was reading since I'd already sort of seen her for myself. Instead of seeming sterile and righteous, she was someone I almost felt close to, thanks to Thompson's able writing and Owen's performance.
RSU will present An Evangelist Drowns this weekend, Thurs., Oct. 25 through Sat., Oct. 27 at 8pm in the Liddy Doenges of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. For tickets and information, call 596-7111 or visit www.tulsapac.com.
Church of the Black Gold
On another quasi-religious note, I took the time last week to view "Holy/Oil" at Living Arts of Tulsa, 308 S. Kenosha, which closes this Thurs., Oct. 25 with a reception from 5 to 8pm.
The installation, by the Wa-KOW! Collective, examines the two most common responses given to the questions, "When you think of Tulsa, what comes to mind?": religion and oil.
In a 34-minute installation of four large screens, the group, consisting of David Goldstein, Mindy Stricke, Grant Jenkins and Nathan Halverson, examines and intertwines these two seemingly disconnected subjects through photography, poetry and music. Each member had a hand in each aspect of the piece, researching, photographing and writing about major points of religion and oil in Tulsa.
On two screens, images of oil are spliced between images of religion and vice versa, so that what you're seeing is a new structure unto itself and something that looks like it could almost be a real structure.
One another screen, these images are flashing quickly while words are spoken in the background, while protest music and sounds of water flowing are played. And on the fourth screen are the straight-faced expressions of the members of the collective.
This part of the installation, Steve Liggett, Living Arts director, told me, was to represent the idea that Wa-KOW! is presenting these images without any feeling for them in order to allow the viewer to make up his or her own mind about what they mean.
I thought the Wa-KOW! Collective was brilliant in fusing together images of the religion and oil industries--because both are businesses--and asking the audience, "How do these two things fit together? Do they?"
In doing so, they first gave you pieces of an image to work with, words that don't quite fit into a sentence, then they show you the whole picture. The installation also sort of makes you want to reexamine Tulsa and how these two major industries have shaped the city and the people who live in it--whether we believe they've affected us personally or not.
The exhibit definitely requires the time and attention of the viewer, but its purpose is achieved and it's worth taking a look at. And Thursday is your last chance. The exhibit is free and open to the public, but donations are appreciated and keep Living Arts running. For more information, call 585-1234 or visit www.livingarts.org.
Oh, The Horrors
And, if after all that religious-based art, you need to be naughty again, remember The Rocky Horror Show is showing this week in the Williams Theater of the Tulsa PAC Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. I didn't have a chance to see it this weekend, but you know I will. Tickets are $18-24. Get them at www.tulsapac.com.
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