2011 was a good year for Mennonite Theatre. Patrick Friesen’s The Shunning was resurrected to much acclaim for its 25-year anniversary while Jessica Dickey probed the mysteries of communal forgiveness as demonstrated by the Amish of Nickel Mines after the Schoolhouse Shootings in 2006.
For Anabaptists, these two works make positive bookends for a debate on the place and role of community in the life of the individual and the communal response to violence. For sociologists, the two works help clarify and advance questions of identity formation and maintenance in communal societies. For North Americans, both works provide rare private glimpses into the lives of their oft-misunderstood Anabaptist neighbours – introducing them to our archetypes, our lives, our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses.
Note that while I have studied Friesen's texts and the background of events at Nickel Mines, due to the distance between Chicago and Winnipeg, I could not view these two productions personally. This article is comprised of reviewing texts and critical reviews of the productions, researching the background of the plays and speaking with friends and acquaintances who were fortunate to see the productions. The purpose of this post is to raise awareness of these two works.
First produced in Winnipeg in 1985, Friesen’s dramatic adaptation of his well-known poem of the same name, continues to provoke curiosity, sorrow and questions regarding social violence.
Like others, CBC reviewer Joff Schmidt generally approved of Robb Patterson’s direction and of Mike Shara’s portrayal of Peter Neufeld.
|Courtesy and (c) CBC Canada.|
The Shunning is set in rural southern Manitoba. Neufeld, a Mennonite farmer, begins to question certain tenets of his faith such as God’s intention to send persons to hell. Neufeld is shunned for his lack of belief. Schmidt says it well, “… he is ‘shunned’—a horrible form of imprisonment where he remains in the community, but no one, not even his wife and children, is allowed contact with him until he gives in to the church,” (CBC Theatre Review, 11 Feb, 2011).
Like other deeply personalized accounts of alienation and degredation (Dan Franck’s La separation comes immediately to mind, with tinges of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery), Friesen takes the audience from a time of peace and happiness in a small community, within a young family, inside an old traditional culture, to a tortured experience of loss of identity, familial standing and compassion. Drawing similarities with Milan Kundera, Friesen’s Neufeld makes the mistake of doubting the essential truth of the community (gemeinde). While his doubts are not serious, or even life-changing, they yet threaten the essential conformity necessary for the preservation and continuance of the tight Mennonite culture – a society founded on the blood of martyrs and continued in a perpetual line of refugee immigrants struggling to find acceptance and peace – an historic journey that has strongly influenced their character and their theology.
To be fair, there are two sides to the argument Friesen portrays. Agreeably, Friesen is depicting scenes of spiritual violence (now referred to as social violence). At the same time, much of that violence is directed at preserving the community against assimilation and cultural aggression by North America’s dominant Anglo-American majority. As a Mennonite, I find myself sympathetic to both sides of the story and yet know all too well the shiver of fear when one is suspected of running afoul of the communal expectation.
Two items stand out in Friesen’s presentation – the setting of the prairies as a place of comfort and the familiarity of the soil, yet an empty horizon that can be isolating or clarifying depending on the circumstances. Secondly, the fact that The Shunning is still as applicable today as it was in pre-War Manitoba indicates that we as Mennonites, might yet have some cultural resolution to pursue.
Dickey’s Chicago presentation, The Amish Project, is much more hopeful – and yet, amusing in that unlike Friesen who grew up Mennonite, Dickey has purportedly had little actual contact with the Anabaptist culture.
The Amish Project follows the life of the Amish community near Nickel Mines, PA. In 2006, Charles Roberts, IV, a local milk delivery person, rather inexplicably took the Amish occupants of a small one-room schoolhouse hostage and shot ten girls before committing suicide.
Dickey picks up immediately on the United States’ fascination with this story – unlike other tragedies, people found something unexpected and hopeful in the way the Amish came together and shocked popular culture by publically forgiving the man who had murdered five children and wounded five others. People were genuinely shocked with the Amish actually reached out to Roberts’ own family and consoled them for the loss of their husband and father, assuring them of the community’s forgiveness.
Instead of venting pain and rage, the Amish quietly tore down the site of the shootings and rebuilt the school elsewhere. Popular response to the Amish reflects how truly Nickel Mines has witnessed of their relationships to Christ and Anabaptist heritage to the greater culture.
Tony Frankel, a non-Mennonite critic for The Chicago Theater Review, wrote of Dickey’s premise – “What kind of community forgives instead of resorting to a knee-jerk reaction of blind revenge? What do they people do to mourn and work through such as unspeakable crime?” Yet Frankel hits on Dickey’s weakness – “Unfortunately, we will not find a deeper understanding of this event and its aftermath…” (Theater-Chicago, 28 Sept 2011).
|Courtesy and (c) Theater-Chicago.|
Dickey’s play revolves around a single actress (Sadieh Rifai) playing several roles. Despite Frankel’s criticism, many non-Mennonite acquaintances in fact found the presentation compelling and commendable. Yet, one can see where the structure leads one to confusion – the cultural spirit of the “Amish” comes through where Rifai had trouble communicating the spirit of the individuals portrayed. The importance of The Amish Project comes in the exploration as to why the Amish reacted the way they did – the weakness is that while the story is told artistically and compellingly, Dickey demonstrates no understanding of the strength and faith that unites the Amish into a strong unified Fellowship. People wanting to view a compelling story can leave happy. Those wishing a deeper encounter with Amish cultural criticism will, of necessity, leave disappointed. The Amish Project is pure Hallmark, not quite PBS.
Friesen’s The Shunning and Dickey’s The Amish Project deal with opposing understandings of Mennonite and Amish cultures. Friesen, an insider, bares the dark seamier side of social violence that can occur when faith and trust are misplaced and abused. Dickey, an outsider, falls back on a real-life demonstration of a slightly romanticized perspective of life within a strict, tight-knit, traditional, religious community.
These two plays are compelling because neither world can exist without the other. The Amish were able to reach out to the Roberts in many ways because they were not members of the community. Only by pursuing the strict traditional social controls criticized by Friesen are they able to maintain the community that gave them the strength to move beyond the tragedy and to reach out to others. Yet in maintaining these strengths, there will be casualties and too often, abuse. Both plays are opposing faces of the same coin. Both plays make for compelling commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of both the Anabaptist culture and its critical relationship to or juxtaposition with the dominant North American culture.
Whether Anabaptist or Inglisher, your participation in this dialogue is recommended.
The Amish Project: