Portraying Dorothy Day
Portraying Dorothy Day on a stage would seem a challenge of formidable proportions in and of itself. But to do those portrayals in a series of makeshift settings, church sanctuaries and communal dining rooms—as well as on actual stages—raises the stakes of such a challenge. Sarah Melici has been doing this for the past four years in a one-act play called “Fool for Christ,” written by playwright Donald Yonker, but with extensive input from Ms. Melici as its performer.
I saw the very first performance of “Fool for Christ” in 1998, in what was perhaps the most daunting and yet appropriate setting—the Mary House Catholic Worker house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Why daunting? Because it was there that Dorothy Day lived out her last years until her death in 1980; she often took her meals in the same lower-level dining room where the performance took place.
“I was terrified,” Sarah said of her opening performance. “There I was, on Dorothy’s own turf, performing in front of a group of people, many of whom had known her well.” But afterwards those same people were encouraging, and thus began a journey that has taken Sarah all over the country and to Canada as well. How had she first come to know of this woman whom the church has declared venerable, the first step on the road to canonization—a woman who, after becoming Catholic, gave her life to working for justice and peace among the poor and homeless people in the immigrant neighborhoods where she spent most of her life?
“Father Bill Bausch, the former pastor of my parish in Colts Neck, N.J., was a great admirer of hers,” Sarah explained, “and when he moved on, he left as a gift to the parishioners a life-sized statue of Dorothy that was placed on the grounds. It shows her seated on a bench. I often stood looking at it,” she continued, “and eventually something clicked.” The initial realization that the life of Dorothy Day might lend itself to a one-act play (it had already been produced as a movie, “Entertaining Angels”) led her to read all she could find about her subject and to pay a number of visits to the two Catholic Worker houses in lower Manhattan, and also to the cottages on Staten Island where Day and other Catholic Workers had sought occasional respite. (They were destroyed in 2001 by a developer.) “I came to love her for her humanity—her care for the poor and her dedication to Gospel-based nonviolence,” she said, and added, “One of the lines in the play, for example, is ‘We support the works of mercy, not the works of war.’”
Guided by her instincts as an off-Broadway actress, she realized that the first draft of the script—essentially a narrative—“cried out to be dramatized” into one that would show Dorothy Day at various stages in her life and with some of the other people she had known well. The resulting dramatized version contains over a dozen characters, including Dorothy’s daughter Tamar and the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin. All were played by Sarah.
Although universally positive, the reactions of her audiences vary according to their ages and backgrounds. “High school students tend to be very attentive but quiet,” she said. “Many of them probably had not heard of Dorothy Day beforehand, although their teachers do give them some background information. At the end, however, they give an ovation and hoot and holler.”
Performances before church groups, and those in retreat houses and at conferences, generally draw older audiences, most of whom are already familiar with Dorothy Day’s life and work. “They are more vocal, including during the lighter moments, when I show that she had a sense of humor that could evoke laughter,” Sarah said. University students also respond well to the presentation. Once, she said, she received an e-mail message from a university student who wrote, “I saw the movie and that moved me, but the play moved me to action.”
At many of her performances, Sarah continued, “I find at least one person who actually knew Dorothy Day.” At St. Elizabeth College in New Jersey, for instance, she met a woman who had been in jail with her. The woman told of her initial reluctance to join Dorothy in being arrested for an act of civil disobedience, but then, on seeing Dorothy take the step, she followed suit and was arrested too.
In fact, two of the scenes in the play are set in jails. The very first scene shows her in a cell with an imaginary fellow prisoner. Especially in view of Dorothy’s own sympathy with the incarcerated, it is perhaps not surprising that Sarah chose to present the play in several East coast prisons. “A now very old friend of Dorothy’s, Sister Peter Claver, who for years did prison ministry, asked me one day if I’d like to go in with her sometime, and I said yes—which is how the play came to be performed at the prison in Philadelphia.”
“I performed the play for the women, and then in the evening for the men—with about 50 in each group, which is all the guards would allow to be in the room. After the presentation for the women,” she went on to say, “one came up and hugged me, and then they all wanted a hug. The reaction of the men was similarly enthusiastic. They too lined up for a hug.”
The only prop for the two prison scenes consists of a few simulated bars set into a small, light-weight base. For other scenes, the same simple prop is used to hang a two-sided sign. On one side are the words: Don’t buy grapes. It is in this scene that Sarah portrays Dorothy Day’s picketing in a vineyard in California, in support of Cesar Chavez—another of the civil disobedience actions that resulted in her being jailed. (The California picketing also led to the famous photograph of Dorothy seated on a folding cane-chair in a vineyard—a frail, elderly woman surrounded by burly policemen with guns on their hips.) The same sign can be turned to read, on the other side, “Fair Wages.” Used earlier in the play, it evokes a scene dealing with a 1949 strike for more just salaries by the gravediggers at the Calvary Cemetery in New York. Cardinal Spellman broke the strike by ordering seminarians to dig the graves.
Other simple props include a bench, a small table and a chair. As a costume, she wears a simple green dress meant to suggest, at times, a prison uniform. She also carries a large handbag with the kinds of books Dorothy Day carried with her on her travels and into jail cells: her journal (on which she based her On Pilgrimage columns for the Catholic Worker paper), a Bible and a copy of a Dostoyevsky novel. Dostoyevsky was a favorite author, whose spiritual intensity and awareness of justice issues corresponded with Day’s own.
What, I asked Sarah, has she hoped to convey to audiences by her presentation of “Fool for Christ”? “I want to spread Dorothy Day’s message—that we’re all connected, and that the greatest commandment really is love.” Especially in these days, when the threat of war is omnipresent and the number of homeless people rises, she tries to emphasize the critical importance of this message, to young and old alike. “Unfortunately,” she said, “not a great deal has changed in the world since Dorothy’s time.”
More bookings are scheduled for 2003 (see www.foolforchrist.com for the schedule). Among them is one at Mary House, where “Fool for Christ” first began, and where it is tentatively scheduled to be performed again as a kind of reprise sometime around May Day—a day of special significance for the Catholic Worker movement because it was on May Day of 1933 that the first copy of the Catholic Worker newspaper was distributed in Union Square at a cost of a penny a copy. The price has not changed in the intervening years. But as “Fool for Christ” continues to be performed, it also continues to evolve. For example, Sarah has added the reading of a short psalm, “because I realized how much the psalms meant to Dorothy.” Similarly, on seeing the play, “Sister Peter Claver suggested the addition of more about the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, so I added the text: ‘We feed the hungry, yes, and we try to give them shelter and some clothes; but there’s a strong faith at work here—we pray.’” Overall, Sarah said, “I feel that the play has become stronger.”
Sarah is now collaborating with Loyola Productions in Los Angeles to make the play into a video. “It’s a work in progress,” she said, and not an easy one because, she explained, “it’s hard to transfer ‘Fool for Christ’ to video format and still get the same impact.” Looking back, Sarah said of the past four years that they represented not only “an incredible journey,” but also a journey of faith, because they were made in company with a woman of unshakeable faith: Dorothy Day, whose values, shown in her actions and writings, reflected those of Jesus himself.