ATC Plumbs Entrenched Racism in Welcome to Jesus
Will Davis directs Janine Nabers’ world premiere Welcome to Jesus at American Theater Company. It’s an oddball dissection of Texas Christianity and their other state religion, football, all driving toward the goal of understanding entrenched racism.
It’s a topical question, but the answer is unclear here. The white Danver family is the law in the fictitious town of Hallelujah, where “the people are limited, but the land is far”: stern dad Sheriff Paul (John Henry Roberts) and Barney Fife-like son Officer Mike (Casey Morris), also called Skip, the patriarchy atop a family of pigskin super fans.
Daughter Dixie (Taylor Blim) is the uniformed “best flag twirler in the state” (red and white costumes by Melissa Ng), dating the petite football star Bud (Theo Germaine). Ma (Stacy Stoltz) stays at home, cooking up fatty foods and dark ideas.
Paul’s favorite son, his namesake, and quarterback hero is gone, so the town, team and kin focus their energy on winning the season for dearly departed number 44, so much so that they assimilate a mysteriously lost Black kid (Rashaad Hall) into the family and onto the field.
There’s a lot of going on within the intriguing set, designed by Yu Shibagaki, from a slippery wood chip floor, a dingy clapboard house front and porch next to an array of red home and farm implements hung on the back wall, to the foreshadowing of twisted and knotted ropes on the other vertical surfaces.
The sound design by Jeffrey Levin is also populated with spooky echoes and nosy, judgmental call-and-responses from the unseen townsfolk.
Flashlights are overused, indicating car headlights and providing the under-the-chin ghost story feeling to accompany some strangely supernatural acts.
But most actions here are not remarkable as the body and mind of a young Black man are appropriated, enslaved, to serve white aspirations. A vital, visceral reminder and discussion, but better plumbed in a movie like Get Out, where viewers first find common ground with the white family before being confronted with their horrendous hearts of darkness.
The mantras of the moment are here – “say my name” and “we’re good people” – but this execution is too on-the-nose. We’re trying to figure out why racism still exists 152 years after the Civil War, and need to explore some shades of gray to navigate the still-painful distance between black and white.
Welcome to Jesus runs through December 3 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago. Tickets are $20-38 at 773-409-4125.