In 1995, a former Jesuit priest and scholar in Eastern languages published a religious study that has since become indispensable to Christians, agnostics, and pagans alike--a book that undertook a witty, irreverent, somewhat distant, but astringently observant investigation of all the sex, blood, pestilence, smiting, betrayal, and vengeance in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, Jack Miles' God: A Biography stylishly proves a longtime theory of mine: The Bible is one of the truly great beach reads in world literature, if you remove all the dreary denominationalism and politicking that has weighed down its reputation over the centuries.
Miles did just that, taking the characters only at their word and on their own historical terms, spinning a rather gossipy literary analysis from all the action like much of the best criticism about Hamlet and Odysseus has done. He treated God no differently than others and emerged with a fairly ironic confirmation of a sacred Christian tenet. We were created in God's image, all right--temperamental, jealous, impatient, indecisive, prideful, and somewhat easily manipulated through our own foibles.
Some of the best pages in Miles' book are dedicated to the Book of Job, and it's not surprising; the author seems to have taken great inspiration from the man who was not content with that benign maxim "God works in mysterious ways" (which has always, by me, been interpreted as "Shut up and deal with it"). Job, who strove all his life to keep God's laws and live piously and humbly, demands to know why his fortunes abruptly changed course and he saw his livestock and grains blighted, his servants slain, and his children killed when the roof collapsed on them. He'd be really pissed if the whimsy that guided these calamities were ever revealed to him, but Job, in relative ignorance, keeps on pressing God. He's one of my favorites too: A certain amount of impudence is the reward for mortality, I say. As our bodies decay by the day, why shouldn't we speak up while our vocal chords still work?
The Book of Job
Through August 20
506 Main St.,
Writer-composers Joe Rogers and Rudy Eastman take a less secular approach in their musical The Book of Job, being revived by Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre for the second time since its 1996 debut. With Eastman also acting as the director, they infuse the show with the radiant yearning and bellowing, foot-stomping ecstasy of the Negro spiritual tradition. Yet this production, in ways less cerebral but more winningly visceral, is also darkly humored, a little rude, and unafraid to fling thorny asides at contemporary topics. Once the show hits its stride (and the performers, en masse, do take some time to really get rolling), it represents that scintillating median that one expects from a Jubilee musical--songs flavored with the meat juice of the black church and the blues joint, and lyrics, dialogue, and performances informed by the increasingly complex, intertwined, and ambivalent state of race in America.
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Costumed in a gorgeously quiet storm of competing African patterns courtesy of designers Eastman and Crickett Pettigrew, the 15 cast members pour onto the Jubilee's small stage for "Praise God," the first of a series of gospel-choir renditions. It quickly becomes apparent that there are many very youthful newcomers in the ensemble (including students from Texas Christian University and Texas Woman's University), and although their voices are uniformly professional, they definitely lack the casual passion that marks the Jubilee veterans. The hand gestures and swaying were tentative, the faces lacked any clear conviction, and so the mood at the Sunday matinee I attended was not as riotously set as it might have been.
Also, Janice Jeffrey is billed as The Storyteller and The Voice of the Lord, but I wish they'd just called her "God" and let her cut loose with a gale-force characterization of the cantankerous, capricious Lord of the Old Testament, the way Keron Jackson is allowed to romp as a bowler-hatted, sunglasses-wearing Satan. Would that be too ballsy for Fort Worth audiences? Directed to merely provide exposition and between-song narration in a soothing voice, Jeffrey represents the production's major missed opportunity. For as Jack Miles points out (and the translated text makes clear), the Book of Job offers unmistakable literary evidence that the Old Testament God is so arrogant, he can be tricked by outside forces. He is indeed proud of Job as a servant, until Satan whispers in his ear that of course Job is so reverent, because he has enjoyed so much "protection." Mess with his agenda, and he'll surely curse your name. If Jeffrey onstage had been the heavenly equal to Jackson's hellish smooth operator, their conversations would have awarded audiences with thrills of Biblical proportion.
Once Elisabeth Ivy, Kia Fulton, Melanie Cherice Bivens, and Antoinette Watts appear as judgmental old women and circle a disease-ridden Job (Angelo Reid), wagging their fingers and belting "What You Done" (must have been pretty bad to deserve this, natch), the audience was given something to clap and holler about. Here, Rudy Eastman and Joe Rogers have located one of the wise contradictions in the story: Even while Job's neighbors insist that he refuses to embrace his human nature as a sinner, they wonder what foul deeds he has hidden to make his life so wretched, sins they obviously haven't performed because they've managed to avoid his torturous punishments. Eastman and Rogers exploit the irony to lush dramatic and musical effect. This question is a constant source of tension in The Book of Job--who's the bigger hypocrite, Job, who thinks he doesn't deserve his tidal wave of suffering, or Job's scornful peers, who think he does but they, by implication, don't?
As Job, Angelo Reid impresses because, in his songs and his talk, he never lunges for the kind of meretricious entertainment his co-stars excel at. He manages to translate stoicism authoritatively as a character trait, with neither smugness nor self-pity (a display of either would've caused the whole characterization to implode). He could have been easily swallowed up by the trio of Jubilee stars we expect to be no less than riveting--Carolyn Hatcher, Robert Rouse, and Kevin Haliburton. They have relatively smaller participation in The Book of Job, but roam the stage like the fearless conquerors of melody we know. As Job's wife, Hatcher punctuates her scorching delivery, reminiscent of a headliner from the legendary Chess or Stax/Volt labels, with a vaudeville comedienne's loose-limbed physicality; someone needs to offer this woman a nightclub act fast. Robert Rouse and Kevin Haliburton portray Job's scolding former comrades Eliphaz and Bildad, and with each man's big number placed side by side in the second act, we get to relish the vocal equivalent of one of those so-called "cutting contests"--battles for supremacy in technique, improvisation, and expressiveness between two jazz instrumentalists. Rouse opts for gymnastic spins and flips between tenderness and ferocity, with a pause for the occasional soul-stirring scream, while Haliburton likes to tease with nasality and unexpected phrasings of a lyric. Between them, they canvass the human experience of exaltation and degradation that's contained in Job's heart.