Thursday, February 13, 2014

Berry goes "Beyond The Grave", so we don't have to!

In December, fellow NOSHAins Rose and Chad, and my wife, Sharon, ventured down to the Victory Fellowship Church on Airline Highway to watch the “multi-media” production, “Beyond the Grave” (add an echo effect). The show is basically a play with some video excerpts channeled through a massive sound system, defective sound system I might add, that is designed to scare Billy Hell out of teenagers and perhaps even younger minds judging by the audience.

I know you’re probably asking yourself, “Why would you subject yourself to something like that?” Well, I've always been fascinated with people watching, examining what people do and why they do it. In fact, I studied anthropology in college and I worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in my younger days. I have always been somewhat of a voyeur when it comes to the oddities of human culture and one of the most fascinating to me is the culture of evangelicals and the modern “mega-church” phenomenon.

I grew up Catholic in a small town in Western Kentucky that is overwhelmingly evangelical, mostly Southern Baptist and Pentecost. Being one of only a handful of Catholics in my school, I can remember being told I was going to hell from the first grade through my high school graduation. By sixteen, I had become agnostic and by my mid-twenties I would consider myself an atheist. But my childhood experiences always stuck with me and as a rational adult I am fascinated with the propaganda tactics used by evangelical churches to “win hearts and minds”.

The premise for “Beyond the Grave” was exactly what I expected to be….fear. The production, at its root, is a play, with multiple fourth wall breaks by a minister/narrator who comes out to espouse the morals of the previous scenes. This guy was wearing what looked like a black concert t-shirt with some kind of bloody mask on it. I have no idea what the image was but it echoed the theme of the play as blood and gore was everywhere in this show.

As a teenager I remember seeing a concert by the heavy metal group, “W.A.S.P.”, who were notorious for blood and gore stage antics but I think BTG may have one upped them in the is production.

In fact, before the show started, they threw out a bunch of these t-shirts and other schwag into the crowd while yelling, “Who likes free stuff?!? Isn’t God great?!?!” It was very reminiscent of a rock concert.  

The plot of the story is set in a local high school, “Metairie High School”, and involves the typical cast of high school characters. There are five principles (I can’t remember their names): Emotionally Disturbed guy (I will call him Dexter) who refuses to accept Jesus; Dexter’s sweet, insecure girlfriend who has allowed him to control her, even submitting to having pre-marital sex with him; Dexter’s childhood friend who is so into Jesus that he carries a Bible with him at all times and never stops hounding people about letting God into their heart; A mostly benign but self-centered girl who has the most batshit parents on the planet…she happens to be the most popular girl in Metairie High School; and finally a whacked-out, drug dealing, goofball guy who admittedly once drugged and date-raped a girl.

There is also a sixth character… I believe to be equally important…. a short, dumpy, gay boy who incessantly hits on the drug dealing, goofball guy. This character doesn't make it to the all important third act and therefore can’t be considered a principle, but his role in the production can’t be understated. In fact, the script obsessed on this character. I’ll expound on that later.

The plot is pretty self-explanatory in the production’s website synopsis….Dexter goes Columbine and the play culminates with the principals being brought before God for their final judgment.

So…I’m gonna spoil the story for you….if you want to go see the production yourself, stop reading here. But don’t…really…don’t be so masochistic that you would go watch this play…just try to finish reading this review and you will have subjected yourself to enough pain and nonsense.

I was tempted to jump straight to judgment day, but let me fill you in on some of the outrageous dialogue and character arcs just to prolong the agony.

It was really hard in the first few scenes to figure out what the hell was going on. The opening scene is of Dexter asleep in bed and his girlfriend trying to wake him up to go to class. Watching this scene unfold, I assumed they must be in college but by the second scene I realized the whole play was about high school students. I’m still not sure how two high school kids were living together but I think the playwright simply wanted to make sure the audience understood these two were sexually active, hence the bed scene.

It only got more confusing from that point. The next scene starts with Ms. Popularity’s parents about to have an early morning romp on the couch when she interrupts them on her way out the door to school. The girl announces that she’s been accepted to Tulane, her mother has no idea what Tulane is and turns the conversation to a young muscular boy that may be interested in her daughter. The mother goes all cougar on the conversation and at that moment I realized this may be the most fucked up play I've ever seen…it did not disappoint as it progressed.

I assume the “cluelessness” of the parents was meant to portray people who are so caught up in trivial things like sex and work that they ignore what’s really important in their children’s lives….a personal relationship with Jesus. Apparently a full ride to Tulane isn't that important either.

In between acts, I exchanged many looks of confusion and amusement with my fellow adventurers. We were all trying to make sense out of the plot, but the whole environment was so absurd it proved to be a mental struggle. At some point I had to remind myself that this probably wasn't going to make sense no matter how much I tried to make it do so…only then I was able to turn the logic center in my brain off and simply enjoy the absurdity. Once I passed that hurdle the real challenge became to not let myself be offended by what I was watching…I didn't succeed in that mental challenge.

As the classroom scenes began, almost immediately did the gay-bashing along with them. I take pride in the fact that I’m not easily offended, but as the play progressed I stopped counting how many times my wife and I exchanged expressions of horror as one gay zinger after another was unleashed on this dumpy kid who, as an actor, had clearly jumped the shark in his effort to seem effeminate.

It got so bad, Shakespeare would have stopped the play to note, "....methinks thou doth protest too much”.

Probably the worst line, which Rose caught and I missed because I was still reeling from the admission by the drug dealer dude that he roughed up a girl and date-raped her, went something like, “We’re not even talking about gays, drug dealers, and murderers….everyone will one day be judged by God!”

Apparently those three categories of people compromise the very worst humanity has to offer.  

Of course it was hard to tell exactly what this line was because the guy delivering it, playing the part of a gym coach, was nearly incomprehensible. He was trying to deliver Eddie Murphyesque one-liners berating the gay kid while randomly quoting passages from the “Gospel”. It was beyond painful to watch this whole scene unfold…I can’t begin to explain it. Just when you thought they would lay off the gay kid…when you were begging them to lay off the gay kid…the script went right back at him. We were forced to watch this barely literate actor (the gym coach) rattle off homophobic slurs followed by Bible verses for what seemed like, forgive me, an eternity.  

Meanwhile, the gay kid can’t stop hitting on the drug dealer kid and seems oblivious to the beat down he was getting by Eddie Murphy gym coach. Did I mention they couldn't stop harping on the gay kid? Well. Let me state it again….they couldn't stop dissing the gay kid. Most of the humor in the play was based on the “silly-willy homo”. I faintly remember the thesis they drew about the gay boy’s ultimate fate that went something like, “God loves us no matter what we do, but not everyone will be allowed to enter his kingdom.” That may not be exactly right but whatever the script said it was strategically ambiguous and they conveniently left the gay character out of the final judgment scene.  

Even more annoying than “gay boy” was the kid who carried the Bible non-stop and couldn't seem to carry on a conversation if it didn't relate to Biblical scripture. Honestly, I’m not sure how this kid was able to wipe his ass because he apparently couldn't put his Bible down long enough to do anything else.

But the key character…the pivot point in the entire play….was a goofball, date-raping, drug dealer dude. You’d think Dexter would be the thesis of the play instead it ends up being this guy. Who woulda thunk it? Actually, I did…right at the beginning of the third Act but we’re not quite there yet.

As expected, Dexter ends up going Columbine, in the middle of a prayer group, at school no less. A prayer group in a public school, mind you…don’t try to figure that one out….it’s “Metairie High School”. I’m guessing it’s a Bobby Jindal voucher school to boot.  

Anyway….Dexter ends up shooting all of his friends which culminates in a bloodbath, video montage. The funny part about this scene is that it starts with Dexter demanding that Mr. Bible, his longtime childhood friend, deny that there is a God…oh….as he points a silver-plated 9mm at Bible-boy’s head.

As I was watching this I was thinking, “Holy shit I hope that gun isn't actually loaded...” I mean, judging by the production standards I could totally see someone forgetting to unload the real 9mm they were using as a prop. Not to mention he was waving it at the audience the entire time. I kept fearing a Brandon Lee scenario.

Paranoia aside, I started chuckling thinking about the message the play was sending….Columbine and all the random acts of violence America has experienced in the past few decades were the result of godless souls trying to challenge the faithful. Never mind that the majority of violent acts in the history of mankind were committed by “the faithful” following their own delusions. I couldn't help but laugh at the notion that an atheist or agnostic would put a gun to someone’s head and demand that they deny God exists. Has that ever happened? I know the opposite has happened throughout history, but I seriously doubt an atheist would take someone’s life for refusing to deny God.

My rumination was suddenly interrupted with a cacophony of gunshots coming form the crackling speakers hanging over the stage combined with a blood-splattering video montage that would make George Romero blush. Blood…bullet holes in the head….blood…panicked Ms. Popularity hiding in the bathroom stall only to get a bullet to the chest….blood….more blood oozing…more blood pooling…..more blood spattering…Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

You get the picture.

Meanwhile, on the stage, the mega-1000 industrial smoke machine was filling up the room like doobie-smoking fans at a Snoop Dog concert. Pastor-dude in the black t-shirt emerged just as the video was ending to dramatically query the audience, “Death can come at any time, regardless of the trivialities of life that we cling to. But the real question is: are you prepared for what comes after? Are you prepared for what comes…. (echo effect)….. “Beyond the Grave!!!”

With smoke machine still kicking…the first judgment from on high we get to witness is Dexter’s girlfriend. Although she sinned greatly and even had premarital sex with Dexter (gasp) before he went militant-apeshit-atheist and shot her in the head…she did accept Jesus Christ as her savior. Yeah! The pearly gates open, everyone gives an amen and girlfriend gets to spend an eternity with God.

I thought maybe the pastors would throw more t-shirts and schwag into the audience at this point, but no such luck.

God, by the way, was this cat in the sound booth at the back of the house using the echo effect and the ultra-bass knob to deliver these wonderfully, buttery judgments with his own brand of special logic sauce. Even though girlfriend testified against herself, protesting that she wasn't good enough, God laid on the holy butter and told her she had won the cosmic lottery simply because she had asked to be “saved”.

Crowd cheered…and cheered…they were cheering, fo’ true.

Then came Mr. Bible. There wasn’t a lot of suspense in the room on this one…Mr. Bible got the whole tub of Godly butter and more. Yeah!!! It wasn’t nearly exciting as the girlfriend’s judgment but we all had to go through the motions and clap for him anyway.

At this point, the pastor breaks the fourth wall again and explains how even though these two characters’ lives were cut short, they will live in eternal bliss in God’s kingdom.

 As the pastor was explaining this I kept thinking that if I was Dexter’s girlfriend I would venture to the other side of the kingdom from Mr. Bible…I can’t imagine spending eternity with that annoying, sniveling, self-righteous, little shit. I mean why would I want to spend an eternity around people I can’t stand to spend five minutes with on this mortal coil? Maybe there’s some magic heavenly personality adjustment that takes place once you cross the pearly gates…who knows?

Finally, came the moment I’d been waiting for…it was time for the hell hounds!

The next character up was Ms. Popularity. The background music took an ominous turn as she walked out to be judged and everyone could sense this wasn't going to end well. Seriously…the music was way too much foreshadowing….it took all the suspense out of her judgment.

Ms. Popularity made her argument to God that she had lived a good life, she’d obeyed her parents, helped people, committed no crimes, etc. but deus ex machina wasn’t having any of that. He cranked up the bass and the echo effect then proceeded to bitch slap that young lady straight to the deepest recess of Hades

You see…Ms. Popularity had never “come to know God on a personal level”. She had never asked to be saved from her sins…and therefore…she lost the cosmic lottery….waaa, waaa, waahhh….

The smoke machine then went into overdrive again and these figures in black cloaks and hoods swarmed the stage to drag Ms. Popularity down…down…down….

The Grim Reaper, himself, even made an appearance to symbolically point out the direction to hell…turns out it was not directly down but stage right. I guess that was needed in case the minions forgot which way to go.

Meanwhile, the speaker system is blaring this squealing noise that sounded like two pigs fucking in an aluminum grain silo. Yes, I can make that analogy with some degree of experience, having grown up on a farm in Western Kentucky.

The cacophony was so loud it was borderline painful.

Next up was Dexter himself. I don’t have to tell you how that went down except to note that the first thing Dexter said was “God?!?! God?!?! This can’t be happening, you’re not real!” He accused God of abandoning him, but God explained that he had sent Mr. Bible to him in his time of need only to see Dexter reject him.

I wanted to make an argument on Dexter’s behalf at this point and tell God he could have sent someone a little less annoying than that sniveling, Bible-wielding moron if he really wanted to get his message through. I wanted to murder that kid the moment he walked out on stage, so I think God could have been a little more understanding with Dexter but maybe that’s just me.

Dexter, of course, goes to hell.

Fourth Wall breaks…yet again…the pastor comes out to tell us how royally screwed Dexter and Ms. Popularity are for the rest of eternity while reiterating that we, too, may end up suffering the same fate unless we come down the aisle after the play and accept Jesus as our savior.  The hook was cast, the cork was bobbing.

He then tells us there is one more soul yet to be judged, so let’s watch and see what happens.

Lo and behold, it’s drug dealer, date-raper dude…..but something’s amiss….no ominous music…no evil foreboding….could it be?!?!?

God proceeds to engage drug dealer and informs him, to the audience’s surprise (not really), that he has somehow made it into the kingdom of heaven. But drug dealer dude doesn't understand, he actually argues against his own salvation and tells God that he’s done horrible things.

In spite his best efforts to damn his now soul to hell, God tells drug dealer he’s headed to heaven simply because he asked for salvation….the audience goes absolutely apeshit.

couldn't stop wondering about the fate of the girl he date raped, but I’m sure I was the only one worried about that amid the cries of jubilation.

At that point, the lights come up and they start calling people to come down the aisle to get saved…they were reeling in the hook….Rose, Chad, wifey, and I took that as our cue to GTFO and go drink some badly needed beer. I felt very dirty…I needed a baptism of hops and grains.  

One thing Rose, Chad and I all noticed was the intense gay bashing aspect of the play. I had also noticed something else about the Pastor that Rose noticed, he was somewhat effeminate and it occurred to us that he, himself, may be a closeted homosexual. I am betting that he is the playwright and the gay bashing was mostly him yelling at his own insecurity. It was convenient that they left the homosexual character out of the judgment process, we were all curious to see what God was going to say about the gay kid since so much attention was focused on him, but the script wisely didn't go there.

In retrospect, the thing that I keep thinking about the most was what effect the production had on its target market, the younger folks sitting in the audience. I thought about how my thirteen-year-old boy would have reacted if I had taken him to see it. I think he would have looked at me about 15 minutes into it and asked me, “What the fuck did you get me in to here? These people are crazy!”

I think my nine-year-old girl, on the other hand, would have tried to follow the story the best she could and I think it would have ended up troubling her to some extent…possibly a large extent. It’s scary to be told you’re bound to burn in hell unless you conform to a certain agenda when you’re nine years old. As we were leaving I scanned the audience for that age group, wondering what was running through their impressionable young minds.

When I was a child I was exposed to much worse than this by evangelicals from my community in Western Kentucky. I remember the confusion and fear I felt all too well before I finally came to the conclusion, at sixteen, that these people were simply insecure assholes trying to make other people believe as they did in order to allay their own fear.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes perfect to sense to create propaganda pieces like this to prey on younger, developing minds. Watching it unfold as an adult sickened me, but it also helped me understand my own path in life and how I was shaped by influences like this.

While I’m happy my own children aren't being subjected to people like this, another part of me wants them to see it. I want them to understand how powerful fear-driven propaganda can be and the influence it can have over not just children, but adults as well. I think my thirteen-year-old could absolutely handle it but my nine-year-old…that’s another story.

If you want to go see it yourself, they’re running it again on February 28 at 7:30 pm. (Find other dates here.) You may see me there with my son, if I can make him sit through the whole thing. He’ll be the kid in a perpetual face palm…look out for us.   


Jason Brad Berry is an independent, investigative journalist and provides commentary via American Zombie. He lives in New Orleans.

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