Performing Arts

Thinking Cap Theatre’s ‘Church’ asks the audience to ponder its beliefs

If you’ve ever been to an evangelical church service, Young Jean Lee’s Church won’t seem like much of a departure from its real-world equivalent.

The new Thinking Cap Theatre production of Lee’s play features a quartet of evangelists, a choir leader who rocks out like so many contemporary Christian singers, a praise band, sermons, parables, prayer and scripture.

Because Thinking Cap’s new home at The Vanguard, a former church on Fort Lauderdale’s Andrews Avenue, is still being renovated, the show unfolds in the style of a revival meeting under a tent-like canopy in the parking lot. The experience feels so authentic that the neighbors could be forgiven for thinking there’s worship going on in the ’hood.

But Church is indeed a play, one with lots of music and a little dance. Lee’s evangelical Christian parents moved from South Korea to the United States to work on behalf of their faith. And though their daughter is now an avant-garde, intellectual artist and non-believer, Lee plays it straight in Church. Unlike Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a play with a clear plot and point of view, Church introduces ideas within the format of an hourlong service and lets the audience sort out its reactions.

As Thinking Cap’s name suggests, artistic director Nicole Stodard is drawn to material that provokes thought, challenges assumptions and stirs discussion. Church does each of those things, doubtless inspiring some in the audience as it makes others uncomfortable.

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Like Lee, the cast plays Church straight. There’s no winking irony in the performers’ delivery, only smiling and impassioned sincerity. That’s not meant to imply that the play is all praise and hallelujah happiness. Far from it.

The lead evangelist, Reverend José (Scott Douglas Wilson), is a hellfire-and-brimstone type. His aim is to shake worshippers out of their complacency and self-satisfaction. Early on, he suggests that “everyone around you is doomed to a life of disappointing mediocrity, just like yours.” His stories and admonitions don’t get much prettier or more comforting, as he seems to spot Satan’s influence everywhere. Often using the cadences of a sermon, Wilson soothes, confronts and berates his listeners in the play’s most powerful performance.

Using their own first names, the other “evangelists” are a variety of types. Carey Brianna Hart is the nurturing but stressed-out manager who keeps the evangelical show on the road. Vanessa Elise invites prayer requests, then later delivers a mystifying story so fast that she seems to be speaking in tongues. Ann Marie Olson, who sings a glorious Amazing Grace at the top of the show, is the sinner-turned-believer, and Lee makes the details of her dark past truly creepy.

As the soloist and choir director, Sabrina Lynn Gore runs through an eclectic set list with three musicians and a trio of backup singers in the 15 minutes before showtime. This Little Light of Mine, Down by the River To Pray, I’ll Fly Away and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands are there, followed later by Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and Ain’t Got Time To Die. More unexpectedly, Over the Rainbow and Madonna’s Like a Prayer are part of the well-performed musical mix.

Fair warning to the heat-phobic: While staging this particular play in the Vanguard parking lot makes pragmatic and artistic sense, South Florida in August can be a little too evocative of Satan’s terrain. Cleverly, Thinking Cap’s program is printed on the back of a hand-held fan, but it provides about as much relief as a single ice cube in a steam room.

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