The Making of a Playwright

My friend Stephen Adly Guirgis's new play "The M**** with the Hat" has just received a Tony nomination, has been showered with critical praise; and an extended run of the play was just announced, a sure sign of a hit.  My friends Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez were also nominated for Tonys for their performances.  Stephen is also the playwright of "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," whose 2005 production, which featured Yul and Elizabeth, is the subject of my book A Jesuit Off-Broadwayjust released in paperback.  In tribute to Stephen, an exerpt from the book.  

Like Sam Rockwell, Stephen Adly Guirgis had gotten my name from a Catholic church in Manhattan, called Corpus Christi, his childhood parish. When we first met, the play was still being written, although it had been performed in readings at the past two annual summer workshops of the LAByrinth Theater Company. As Stephen would later explain, “Lab,” as he called it, had been his creative home for almost a decade. Working with close friends afforded him a measure of comfort in the midst of the otherwise stress-inducing venture of staging a new play.

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And this play would certainly be a challenge: not only was it new, but it would also be staged in a larger venue and before a wider audience than any of Stephen’s previous works. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot was slated for a run at New York City’s prestigious Public Theater, also the coproducer of the show. Founded in 1954 by the impresario Joseph Papp, the Public Theater was the originator of the popular Shakespeare in the Park series, as well as the source of some of the most successful Broadway plays in the past few decades. Shows as diverse as "That Championship Season," "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "The Pirates of Penzance," "Take Me Out," and " "Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk" all began their profitable lives at the Public. Over its fifty-year life, the theater has staged plays that have won 40 Tony Awards, 135 Obies, 38 Drama Desk Awards, and 4 Pulitzer prizes. The Public, therefore, would give Guirgis’s play instant attention. But wider visibility and a larger audience would also mean an increased risk of failure, and a very public one at that.

At my first meeting with Stephen, in early November, over dinner at a Greek restaurant around the corner from my Jesuit community in Manhattan, the affable and voluble playwright handed me a book of his plays. Stephen was an unlikely looking intellectual: sleepy eyes hung at half-mast, a few days’ growth of beard, gray-tinged black hair flopped over his collar, layer upon layer of T-shirts and sweatshirts, and a crumpled pack of cigarettes at the ready.

He was also a natural conversationalist, every once in a while offering an observation so insightful and clear-eyed that I realized why he was a successful playwright. Though I had heard of two of his most successful works—Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the “A” Train—I was embarrassed to admit that I had seen neither. But I read through these two plays over the next few nights.

Stephen’s writing revealed a playwright who seemed, in the words of the theologian Johannes Baptist Metz, “religious ‘by nature.’” Underneath many of his foul-mouthed characters were men and women, usually poor and unlucky, who had nonetheless not given up searching for meaning, for answers, and for a modicum of faith. I thought of a quote from Saint Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; . . . struck down, but not destroyed.” While Stephen might have blanched at the description, the two plays I read were deeply theological.

They were also wildly profane, full of the kind of vulgarity heard not in church sacristies (at least not most church sacristies) but in locker rooms, bars, and traffic jams. That kind of in-your-face language not only reflected the milieu of the characters but also prevented the presentation of religious themes from becoming either cozily conventional or piously sentimental, and probably helped open a window into theological questions for those normally put off by such topics.

Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, or "Jesus," as Stephen called it, tells the tale of Angel Cruz, a young Puerto Rican in New York jailed for shooting a born-again Christian who has brainwashed his best friend. “All I did was shoot him in the ass,” explains Angel, an essentially good-hearted man. But the minister dies, condemning the young man to his fate. While in jail, he meets Lucius, a born-again serial killer intent on conveying his religious worldview to Angel.

It is an incendiary work, written in the playwright’s slangy style, with the two main characters arguing over questions of free will, personal responsibility, the nature of evil, and faith. “If prayer don’t mean s--t,” says Lucius to Angel, “then how come I was awoken the other night to hear a sorry little bitch stutterin’ over some prayer in between chokes ’n’ sobs ’n’ snorts from inhaling his tears on the damp little prison pillow?”

Even reading the script in the quiet of my office, I felt the play’s passion and intensity. Jesus garnered Stephen a good deal of attention and received nominations for several dramatic awards. In 2002, it was nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award for best new play in London. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley said, “Plays of this ilk automatically raise the body—and mind—temperature of New York theater.”

"Our Lady of 121st Street," Stephen’s next work, paints an affectionate group portrait of the former students of a much-loved Catholic sister, whose funeral they are attending in their old, and poor, neighborhood. The police are also investigating why the nun’s body has disappeared from the funeral home. “What did Rose ever do till the day she died but be a . . . living saint on earth to deserve . . . this sacrilege?” says one character in the first scene.

At the heart of "Our Lady" is the way in which the tough-talking characters—Anglo, Latino, African American—are forced, through direct conversations with one another, to accept responsibility for their lives. As in Jesus, questions of faith take center stage: characters talk about confession, the story of Jonah and the whale, and Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Like Jesus, "Our Lady" was greeted enthusiastically. It received nominations from the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle for best play. In a review of the original production, Bruce Weber said in the New York Times that the playwright had “one of the finest imaginations for dialogue to come along in years.”

After glancing at the back jacket of the book, I was further embarrassed by my ignorance. A writer in the New York Times Magazine stated that Stephen Adly Guirgis “may be the best playwright in America under forty.” Other reviewers compared him to Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Joe Orton, and even Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Subsequent conversations with theatergoers at my parish pointed up my sorry lack of theatrical knowledge. One woman active in our parish told me that she had seen all of his plays.

“You’re working with Stephen Adly Guirgis?” she said. “He’s God-haunted, I think.”

Stephen admitted as much in a later conversation. “In the final scene of Jesus,” he explained, “Angel listens to his conscience, a way of entering into relationship with God. In Our Lady, it is ultimately a priest who gets through to the main character. My last few plays have been about exploring my conflicts with the spiritual side of life as well as what continues to draw me to it.” Judas was a natural next step.

Before my first meeting with Stephen, his new play already had a long history. In a way, it had begun when Stephen was in third grade. That year, one of the Dominican sisters teaching at Corpus Christi told his class the story of Judas. Stephen was horrified. He believed in a loving God, and the idea that God had consigned Judas to a place called hell “just stopped me in my tracks.” He loved and respected the nuns in his school but wondered about what they were telling him. How could God not feel sorry for Judas?

The third grader had stumbled upon a theological conundrum that has challenged theologians, philosophers, and saints for centuries. Doesn’t God, who is kind and merciful, as the psalms say, forgive every sin? How could a merciful God create hell? In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly forgives sins, but he also tells his followers that they will be judged at the end of time, with the “sheep” being separated from the “goats.” How does one reconcile justice with mercy? Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the nineteenth-century French Carmelite nun, solved this dilemma for herself by saying that she believed in hell but also believed it was empty. How could anyone in heaven, wondered Thérèse, be happy if there were still souls suffering in hell? (Tertullian, one of the most influential early Christian writers, disagreed—which is putting things mildly. He predicted that one of the chief joys of heaven would be thinking about the torments of the sinners in hell.)

It would have been unfair to expect Stephen’s teacher to present her third-grade class with a sophisticated presentation of the Catholic understanding of hell, a topic that prompts even the best theologians to scratch their heads.

There is obviously no earthly way of knowing what awaits sinners and the “elect,” but that has not prevented Christians from reflecting on what the soul might face after the death of the body. And it is a difficult topic to avoid, not only because of our innate curiosity (and fear) but also because Jesus of Nazareth alluded to what is called the “Last Judgment” in his preaching, most famously in his parable of the sheep and the goats. For the “sheep”—the good souls, the faithful—there is the reward of heaven, eternal life, or, in Christian terminology, the “beatific vision”: the direct seeing and knowing of the divine.

But from as early as the late fifth century, the church has also recognized punishment after death for the “goats,” those who die in a state of “mortal sin,” or serious sin. Popes and ecumenical councils have wrestled with the topic until the present time, striving to arrive at a definition that preserves God’s justice while not understating God’s mercy. In 1979, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its “Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology,” reaffirmed the belief that some sinners are punitively “deprived of the sight of God.”

But beyond this—and contrary to popular belief—the church has never affirmed that any individual human being has been consigned to hell. Not even Judas.

The general understanding of ordinary Christians, however, is slightly different. What theologians call the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) can be summed up as follows: there is a hell, and Judas is probably there, along with, say, Hitler and Stalin and a few other evildoers. (Most Catholics, perhaps being forgiving sorts, or perhaps trying to hedge their bets on their own sins, don’t like to go further than the most notorious sinners.) This view seems to be what Stephen’s teacher imparted to his class.

For the young boy, though, the notion of a vengeful deity was shocking, disturbing his previously benign image of God. He explained his reaction to me over lunch one day.

“It’s like I’m getting to know you,” he told me, “and all of a sudden someone says to me, ‘Hey, Father Jim is a murderer!’ And I go to you, and you say that you are a murderer, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Harboring questions like these made Stephen feel guilty for having a viewpoint different from that of his teachers and, by extension, different from how God viewed the world. He felt that he was a bad person for believing these things. This was the beginning of his problems with faith.

But the boy with the questions about faith would spend most of his childhood in Catholic schools, first at Corpus Christi and then at Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, until eleventh grade. During that time, his mother, a devout Irish Catholic, and his father, an Egyptian immigrant who was baptized in the Coptic Church, taught him to pray and encouraged him to go to Mass. And he would go—sometimes. “My mother would give me money for the collection in an envelope, but sometimes I would skip Mass, take the money, and play pinball.”

This only added to his guilt. “I felt that it should be easier for me to do the right thing—to pray, to go to church, to be more into all of it.” Stephen grew into an intelligent young man prone to misbehavior: he became proficient at shoplifting, mainly to keep up with his neighborhood peers, whose families were wealthier than his. “I got really good at it, too.”

In tenth grade, Stephen underwent back surgery to correct a childhood curvature of the spine, which put him in a full body cast and kept him out of school for six months. Afterward, his limited ability to walk meant leaving Xavier for a school nearer home; he enrolled at the Rhodes School, which he characterized as being less disciplined than his previous schools. Aimless after graduation, he was a bike messenger for a time and then applied to state universities. Albany State University accepted him, and Stephen described seven years of working toward his degree while partying, battling depression, and teetering on the edge of expulsion, until he discovered the drama department.

“For me, it was a chance to escape and to dream and to play make-believe,” he said. Stephen still acts and recently appeared in Todd Solondz’s movie "Palindromes" and Kenneth Lonergan’s "Margaret." “I love acting, and if I go too long without acting, I get pretty sad, and then I realize that it’s because I haven’t done any acting for a while, and then I try to find a way to do some, and then I immediately feel better.”

His spirituality—even in the midst of doubt—was always a part of his life, and it became part of his profession. “Whenever I perform, I pray to God and ask him for help. I pray to Mary, because I figure she’ll help me more because she’s a woman. And I pray to the Holy Spirit to move through me as I act.”

More confident of his direction in life, he finished his degree in 1991 and almost immediately founded a small theater in the Bronx with a friend. He left after a year, upon realizing that it was acting, not managing, that he wanted to do most. After a year in Santa Fe (where he founded another theater), he returned to New York and heard that a friend from Albany State, John Ortiz, had cofounded the Latino Actors Base, the precursor of the LAByrinth Theater Company. Stephen auditioned and was accepted. Around the same time, he began taking acting lessons at William Esper’s studio, where he met Sam Rockwell.

In 1993, Ortiz asked his friend to write a one-act play for LAB. The fledgling company was having a hard time finding scripts to produce. Francisco and Benny, Stephen’s first play, was a success. “Everyone laughed at the funny parts and was quiet at the serious parts,” he said. “After that, [the company members] kept pestering me to write something for their summer workshops.”

A number of successful full-length plays followed, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a friend and fellow company member. Stephen the actor had become a playwright.

In the summer of 2003, John Ortiz called Stephen again and said, “You’re writing something, right?”

At a loss, Stephen blurted out, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” His last three plays had focused on religious topics, and since Judas had been his original stumbling block with religion, he figured, “Why not go back to the source of my problems and see where it takes me?”

For the first workshop, he brought in a twenty-page script. During the following year, Stephen landed acting roles in two movies, while the play percolated through his unconscious. In the summer of 2004, a few months before I met Stephen, the play, now twenty pages longer, had another reading at the LAB summer workshop. Stephen also began to cast a few members from LAB, including Sam. Hoffman agreed to direct Judas, and the play was scheduled for the next season. After that summer, Stephen’s research began in earnest. So did his resistance.

“I discovered that there was a reason I hadn’t written it before,” he told me not long after the play closed. “The subject was terribly daunting for me, in almost every way. It not only touched on all my spiritual struggles, but it seemed too big a topic for someone like me to tackle.” A visit to the pastor of Riverside Church, where Stephen had attended kindergarten, gave him the courage to continue. Another conversation, with the pastor of Corpus Christi Church, who also gave him my phone number, further encouraged him. His doubt had led him back to his kindergarten and childhood parishes.

Stephen’s spiritual life at the time was also beginning to deepen. “The last several years have been about trying to reconnect and get closer with whatever it is that God is,” he said. “This play about Judas is part of that journey.”

Still, he faced inner resistance. “So I’m trying to write this play about avoidance in Judas’s life—and I’m avoiding it! One day I had lunch with Sam, who said that he had met this young priest and that I should call him. It’s a manifestation of a general spiritual problem that I have: I always think I need to do everything by myself. But the reality is the exact opposite! So I knew I needed to talk to someone about all this theology.”

I asked him whether he believed that his lunch with Sam was a kind of providence.

“Well,” he said, taking a drag off his cigarette, “I took that as a sign of providence, and I took it as a sign that I should get up off my ass and call you.”

Theological questions were indeed foremost in the playwright’s mind, and our conversations ranged from broader questions about grace, forgiveness, and despair to more detailed inquiries into the history of the individual characters in the drama.

Stephen came to our first meeting armed with an impressive knowledge about his new protagonist. His initial preparation had included reading several books and screening a wide variety of movies about Jesus. “When I had trouble reading about Judas, I went to the video store and bought every Jesus movie I could find.”

While this research provided some useful background, it left some key questions unanswered.

Shortly after our first meeting, I lent Stephen a few favorite books and copied some articles I had kept from my graduate studies in theology. These he squirreled away in his cramped, West Side apartment, a fourth-floor walk-up whose front door was a riot of stickers, posters, and photos from previous LAB productions, and whose chaotic interior—the floor was littered with books, clothes, CD covers, loose pages from his scripts, even a dinner plate or two—made locating the books he borrowed a challenge after the play closed. Stephen’s apartment reminded me of the saying that while Jesuits take the vow of poverty, there are others who actually live it more fully than some of us do. But while Stephen eagerly accepted any and all of the books and articles I gave him, it was conversation and debate that seemed to engage him most.

“Okay,” he said one night over the phone, “give me the case against Pontius Pilate.” I told him what would lead people to conclude that Pilate was the man responsible for the death of Jesus. After an hour of that, he said, “Okay, now give me the case for Pontius Pilate.” What most surprised me about these late-night sessions were not the questions Stephen asked but what he did with the answers, quickly transforming the raw material of our conversations into monologues and dialogues in his streetwise style. 

Excerpted from A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Behind the Scenes with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More.

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