From the wings of the theatre, three middle schoolers craned their necks with electric attention to see a scene being performed onstage. I have rarely, if ever, seen that kind of concentration from this age group for that length of time in a theatre, and I have spent a lot of time with that age group. Normally, these junior youth would be here backstage absorbed in readying their own musical performance since they were up next, or at least engaged in some mild goofing-off. But no, they were rapt. The scene involved a twin sister and brother in an African village debating the direction of their lives, and these three young viewers--two African-American girls and one Mexican-American boy--listened like it was their own lives unfolding onstage or like a secret was contained in this dialogue that would resolve the contradictions of their own beings.
I realized how thirsty these young souls are for narratives that speak to their truest selves by performers who represent their cultures and, frankly, their skin colors. I realized again why I do this work, despite the countervailing winds that sometimes leave me feeling like my own bag of Aeolus had been opened while I slumbered.
And that was just one moment from a glorious celebration of diversity, oneness and artistic beauty last night at UNC's Sonja Haynes Stone Center. (Photos) There, the Baha'i community of Chapel Hill and their friends and neighbors celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Baha'u'llah, as part of a worldwide series of grassroots celebrations of that spiritual occasion.
The scene performed was from "Twin Lights," a play I wrote at the request of the Baha'i community of Durham, and which premiered on Friday at the Durham Arts council. The performers were Moriah Renee Williams and Brian Wagura, two young actors from Durham, and the play was directed by Dilsey Davis Shull. (Some photos here.) I will post more pictures and perhaps videos soon, as they make their way back to me, but I thought I would share the program notes I wrote for that performance. They introduce the occasion the play was written for, and provide some context for understanding the play and why it is a distinct direction for theatre--one that is vitally needed in our day of mounting chaos and despair, yet increasing readiness for profound and lasting change.
Two hundred years ago, a child was born who was destined to change the face of the world. Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí-i-Núrí was born in Tehran, Persia (now Iran), the son of a nobleman who served in the court of the Shah. As He grew, He became known for his spirituality, innate knowledge and extraordinary wisdom. He paid no attention to the life of the court and the ambitions of the rich and powerful. He chose instead to attend to the poor and downtrodden, gaining the name, “The Father of the Poor.”
In 1844, a letter arrived from the city of Shiraz meant specifically for Him. It was sent by a 25-year old merchant called “The Báb” (or “The Gate”), and it proclaimed the advent of a New Age for humanity. As soon as He finished reading the message, Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí accepted the Báb as a divine Messenger. He immediately turned His life and wealth to the task of spreading the Báb’s Message. That Message tore through Persia like wildfire with hundreds of thousands converting in a matter of a few short years. The response of the Islamic clergy and the Qajar authorities was terrible. They executed the Báb and slaughtered thousands of His followers, including all the greatest figures among them, except for one— Mírzá Husayn ‘Alí, who was called “Bahá’u’lláh” (or “The Glory of God”).
In December 1852, Bahá’u’lláh sat in an unspeakably awful dungeon known as “The Black Pit” with the weight of a galling chain on His shoulders. For four months He had been there, as one-by-one His companions were taken to be executed. It was here He began to receive the first revelations of a divine Message. “In those infrequent moments of slumber,” He said, “I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain …. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.”
Just then, Bahá’u’lláh was called up, apparently spared because of the intervention of the Russian Minister, who deeply admired Him. Fragile and ill, barely recognizable to His family, He emerged, but not free. Exile would be His lot. For 40 years, Bahá’u’lláh would suffer repeated exiles and imprisonment at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman authorities. “So great have been Our sufferings,” He later said, “that even the eyes of Our enemies have wept over Us.”
In 1863, on the eve of another banishment, He turned sorrow to great joy by announcing to His companions that He was indeed the Promised One the Báb had foretold—the Universal Manifestation of God promised in all the world’s Scriptures. His message was for humanity on the cusp of its collective maturity, this being now an era of unimaginable possibility and of unprecedented danger. His urgent teaching was that the hope of humanity lay in fully embracing our oneness: “So powerful is the light of unity,” He proclaimed, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.”
Our play, “Twin Lights,” is a parable of the possibility and danger, the hope and despair at play in our world today. It takes place in an African village, but also reflects life here in Durham. Its characters form a nuclear family, and at the same time they represent different perspectives on the value of religious teaching. Most evidently, the play dramatizes a simple encounter of what is arguably the greatest religious confrontation of the modern age. By that is not meant the seemingly never-ending clash of competing doctrines and dogmas by their respective followers and fanatics. What is meant is the meeting of the traditional notion of religion—rooted, as it so often is, in fixed boundaries of identity and ethnicity—with a new idea of faith, which seeks not to overthrow and replace, but to dissolve those same hardened boundaries and identities, which paralyze the advance of unity.
For all of history, religion has been that which most strongly binds a people together. Now, for our very survival, we must find a way to conceive of religion as a means of binding not just a people, but all people. “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.”
When I was 19, I spent six months in Botswana, a country in southern Africa whose main feature is its Kalahari Desert. I spent time in the villages in “the bush”, meeting ordinary and extraordinary people, including members of the Baha’i Faith. Yes, there were Baha’is in the remotest settlements of the Kalahari! I was not there long enough to have any effect on the place or the people, but that people and that place had a lifelong impact on me. So when I went searching inside myself for a subject that could capture the heart of this Holy Day celebration, it was to that people and that place that I turned. Thebe came first. Her full name ‘Tebogo’ means “We are thankful” in Setswana, while her nickname ‘Thebe’ means “Shield.”
Tonight’s production is not a scrupulous reproduction of Setswana culture. It is a joyful community collaboration around a story inspired by Botswana performed by individuals of many different backgrounds and faith traditions. Costumes, songs and dances show Pan-African and African Diaspora influences, and beyond. Everyone is bringing their gifts to the table, and so the table starts to look more and more like all of humanity. I am especially grateful for Walltown Children’s Theatre and One Human Family’s engagement. These are vibrant artistic communities of their own, and Dilsey and Cara have brought all those relationships and artistic gifts into our communion.
I believe Baha’u’llah is happy because of our gathering. The sorrow He faced in His earthly life has been turned into joy in the heavenly realms by virtue of this celebration and other such authentic displays of the oneness of the world of humanity. “The earth is one country,” He announced from a 19th Century Ottoman prison, “and mankind its citizens.”