A one-act play about Dorothy Day on DVD—how did that come about?
The author and sole performer of “Fool for Christ,” Sarah Melici, explained the genesis of her video version of the play (FoolforChrist.org) during a conversation last summer: “People who saw the play kept nudging me, saying that a DVD would reach more people” and thus extend Dorothy Day’s message of God’s love for the poor and the need for Gospel nonviolence. I had been fortunate to watch the very first live performance of the play in 1998 in the dining room of Maryhouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Catholic Worker house where Dorothy Day died.
Sarah continues to perform the play live around the country—so far, in over 30 states and Canada—and she continues to receive invitations from churches, universities and other organizations. But the nudging had its effect, and four years ago she began the demanding task of bringing the play to a new format, one that could be viewed in living rooms and not just on stage. Little rewriting was necessary, she said. But where to film it? “We thought of various locations, a church, the Catholic Worker farm north of Manhattan, the beach on Staten Island where Dorothy lived, but none seemed right,” she said. “This was partly because with my representation of Dorothy at various periods and with others taking part in her story, what works on stage does not necessarily work in real-life locations.” The de La Salle Christian Brothers finally offered her appropriate space at Manhattan College.
With a check from Nina Polcyn, a close friend of Dorothy, the fundraising had already begun. “I sent out letters, and a man in California sent a check for $100. When I wrote to thank him,” she said, “he wanted to know more about the project and then mailed a donation of $10,000.” Through other large donations, like one from Maryknoll, some who wished to remain anonymous and another from the Archdiocese of New York, as well as many smaller donations, Sarah received the needed amount.
For the most part, the basic props remained the same, except that instead of artificial prison bars in the first filmed scene, showing Dorothy in jail for a protest for grape workers organized by Cesar Chavez, a section of rented real bars was used. When traveling for live performances, though, Sarah carries what she calls her bar unit of lightweight wooden bars. She also carries a bag with some books Dorothy loved, like a Dostoyevsky novel, her Bible and a notebook. She brings her prison dress too, and a wig that makes her look remarkably like Dorothy.
For the film, the director positioned three cameras for effective close-ups. One is of Dorothy speaking with her dying mother about prayer and the life to come, leaning over the elderly woman with words of reassurance and hope. “Dorothy’s facial expressions would not be apparent to a live audience in a large setting,” Sarah said. Many who have seen both the live performance and the DVD have told her they prefer the latter.
Sarah herself says, though, “I am partial to a live performance” to convey the sense of who Dorothy Day was and the values she lived by. Having seen the live play twice, I can vouch for that. Some of the most memorable live performances have taken place in prisons. She performed twice at Sing Sing, north of New York City. The prisoners responded enthusiastically, she said, to the depiction of the many facets of Dorothy’s life that are deftly woven into the play, focusing as they do on the poor (most prisoners come from backgrounds of poverty) and on nonviolence. But the play also resonated with the depiction of Dorothy as a woman of prayer. “After one performance,” Sarah said, “we all gathered around the walls of a large room and prayed together.”
In the course of her travels, Sarah has visited numerous Catholic Worker houses. Despite the many demanding situations the Catholic workers face every day, “what I have always noticed in them is lots of joy and good humor,” she said, adding: “How else could they survive the pressures of the many needs they face?” Her live presentation was a high point of the celebration of the Catholic Worker’s 75th anniversary celebration in Worces-ter, Mass. “I was a little worried before the performance,” she said. “After all, the workers are the personification of what Dorothy stood for. But,” she concluded, “they gave me a standing ovation.”