Thespian Theology

A review of A Jesuit Off-Broadway

Cover ImageIn his latest book, James Martin, SJ explores the work of a contemporary priest and exemplifies the quintessential Jesuit as cultured, literate believer who seeks to “find God in all things, in all peoples and in all environments.”

A Jesuit Off-Broadway recounts the months Martin—author of My Life with the Saints and an editor at America magazine—spends as the theological advisor and unofficial chaplain for the LABryinth Theater Company in New York while they mounted a brand new play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. When company member Sam Rockwell (The Assassination of Jesse James) took the role of Judas he sought out Martin for crash courses on New Testament theology, the historical Jesus and first century Palestine. Martin’s book retraces how he gradually became enmeshed with the tight-knit theater company during the months in which he discussed Christianity, despair and faith with Rockwell, playwright Steven Adly Guirgis and the cast.

Directed by academy award winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was performed at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village in March 2005 (closing night was the night before Ash Wednesday). It is both a harsh, foul-mouthed, modern play and a tenderly religious one as well in which Judas is put on trial—not for turning Christ over to his executioners—but for succumbing to despair afterwards and killing himself.

With dialogue infused with Guirgis’ East Harlem upbringing, the characters in Judas argue over whether the world’s most famous traitor deserves eternal punishment. Judas is on trial. One of his defenders is St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine who takes great pride in turning her son from a lascivious lout to a Doctor of the Church. In Guirgis’ retelling she is a fiery mama with thigh high boots and a trucker’s mouth. St. Peter, the Apostle Thomas, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the elder each take the witness stand to reconstruct the night Judas turned Jesus over. Finally Christ (John Ortiz, American Gangster) confronts Judas to ask why the disciple couldn’t trust in His mercy.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway is an incredibly readable exploration of the meaning of ministry and an enlightening example of how religion can be engaged in a sincere and thoughtful but non-didactic way. Martin writes with humor and evident kindness, taking on his improvised role as conduit to Catholicism for the un-churched theater crowd with sincerity and grace. He attends hours of rehearsals, engages in endless conversations with actors attempting to understand the biblical characters they portray and offers prayer and guidance when the playwright struggles to finish the work on time for opening night.

A Jesuit Off- Broadway is an incredibly readable exploration of the meaning of ministry and an enlightening example of how religion can be engaged in a sincere and thoughtful but non-didactic way.”

Throughout the book we see Martin steadily making himself available to the cast, sharing the history and theology he learned during his Jesuit formation, educating himself on the mores and traditions of the theater and helping translate the Gospels to a pitch the actors can hear without the interference of their sometimes negative associations with organized religion. In this way, A Jesuit Off-Broadway bares a certain similarity to the long letters Jesuit missionaries once sent to their Provinces reporting on their work bringing the Gospel to far and distant corners of the world (minus the ugly colonialism). In an introduction and an appendix Martin gives an engaging thumbnail history of the Jesuits, their peripatetic traveling and their limitless incarnations: teacher, doctor, statesman, astronomer, physicist, economist, etc.

In Good Company
The way Martin becomes a member of the theater company, shares in the actors’ anticipation and worry, opens himself to learning how the playwright and actors work and what they believe is illuminating. The reader begins to understand how Martin’s Jesuit ancestors made themselves welcome in the Mandarin courts, Japanese palaces and Iroquois councils.

Throughout A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin intersperses discussion of major theological questions with profiles of the actors’ experiences of God, their whole-hearted attempts to understand the story and the growing friendship between the cast and “Fr. Jim.” The play’s unabashed examination of despair, mercy, faith and judgment rescues a topic that could have been smothered in piety or washed out as gimmick.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway is written for a general audience, not the Master’s of Divinity crowd or even necessarily a reader who is familiar with Catholicism. Even readers with no particular interest in theater or ministry per se will be informed and delighted by this portrait of the work of a modern priest.