March 5 2003
funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
By J.H. Tompkins
'HE EXECUTES HIS vague / Intentions on a baffled universe," Bill Jenks says in Denis Johnson's new play, Soul of a Whore, offering his bitter version of the spiritual bromide "God works in mysterious ways." An ex-con, fresh out of Huntsville State Penitentiary, Jenks has a bad attitude and a desperate need for confirmation. The world has gone to shit, and he scary as a sleepless speed freak with a fresh case of Bud is keeping score. A volcanic, menacing presence at the mercy of his obsession, he lives in a place beyond fear.
God may come and go, but execution is no mystery in Soul's Huntsville, the world headquarters of legalized murder. "You try 'em, we fry 'em," chirps a Greyhound clerk. The corrupting stench of death row hovers over the city, offstage and on-. Johnson spoke with the condemned the week five were put to death, a record breaker that raised eyebrows around the world. Huntsville took it in stride, as did the number-one Texan: "I feel in my heart," the president said at the time, "that we have not executed any guilty I mean innocent people. They will be forgiven in heaven."
Wouldn't it be nice if the complications of worldly affairs puzzled George W. more than they do? That won't happen, not in the year of our Lord 2003, when the fundamental things apply in ways you wouldn't believe, or I wouldn't anyhow; 2003 is about certainty, about ancient texts, evangelical conversion, and a members-only heaven.
Still, were nonbelievers like myself faced only with defending Galileo, and opposing the use of leeches as a fever treatment, I'd give it a rest. But in 2003, it's a given that war means holy war, and believers on all sides are dying to go all Jurassic. I felt ready last week when I walked into Intersection for the Arts, not paranoid but definitely edgy, for an interview with Brian Russell. He was going to tell me about the bent world of Jenks.
"When I read the script," he said, "it was like this part, Bill Jenks, was written for me." He casually mentioned his former membership in Bethel Christian Church. No way, I thought, shaping a laundry list of modifiers fundamentalist, Pentecostal, evangelical, charismatic among them into a crude question and pushing it in Russell's direction. He nodded and said, "So to play Jenks, I just allowed myself to be there."
I was speechless my problem, not his. I couldn't get "there" with a helicopter. My disconnect with things spiritual has a long history that shows a godless wasteland, but for the gathering my family refers to as peyote-for-dinner. It was June 1966, I had a small button of peyote in my pocket. Unable to resist temptation, I swallowed it two hours before the guests arrived. Dinner for 25 was served, a platter of rare meat, floating in rust-colored blood running thick like molten metal through sterling-silver gutters. Suddenly I felt an exhilarating, all-consuming love. I thought I'd burst with joy. I fought off the impulse to shout, to weep, to bear witness to the glories of humanity. God was there, next to me, at the picnic table. I was certain beyond all doubt. The next 30 minutes before I rose to introduce him to the assembled were unlike any since. I haven't forgotten the experience, nor has anyone who witnessed it.
There is a relation between god's subsequent disappearance and the fact that a years-long search has never produced more peyote. The fruitless quest for drugs, not god confounds me to this day. But the vanishing act was no surprise considering my roots a family of revolutionaries and easy riders from a small Long Island town named Babylon. The handle was as unlikely as the outpost was ordinary, a place of bomb shelters, bourbon, the L.I.R.R, and lawns thick as cholesterol. Religion was a course for kids at the parochial school. Social and cultural life was stunted and earthbound. I was god strike me down if I'm lying in my third year at a far away boarding school before I learned that Babylon had a biblical antecedent. I looked it up myself.
I want to explain myself without apologizing. The conversation with Russell, however brief, provoked a long look at the new dark ages. Soul of a Whore, though sometimes hugely funny and blessed with a great cast, shows a playwright whose own search rivals that of Jenks. It is a rich, almost ecstatic play, more interesting than I first thought, but more troubling, too. The language of faith has been hijacked by the shock troops of certainty: born agains, Talibans, Zionists, mullahs, snake handlers, crooks, and hustlers. They're trying to freebase the complications of modern life into a simple extract of good and evil. How it came to this modern nations led by power-struck witch doctors and con men preaching the gospel of superstition, hate, and fear is a mystery worth investigating. Just keep me posted.
I haven't forgotten my long-ago brush with god, and more than anything I remember that it burst forth from my own earthbound heart and I discovered a better, more human self. These days I settle for a small theater and a handful of actors creating a world from nothing more than the rich powerful stuff of their souls. Jenks can chase his tail as long as he wants it's the process, not the product that matters unless I stumble across some peyote. The Mission is full of storefront churches offering pay now-buy later salvation. I'll take mine onstage at Intersection, when Russell performs the resurrection of Bill Jenks, Johnson's hell-bent whore, four nights a week.
'Soul of a Whore' plays through March 17. Thurs.-Sun. and March 17, 8 p.m. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, S.F. (415) 626-3311. $9-$15.
E-mail J.H. Tompkins at email@example.com.