Crisis of Faith: Theater Production Explores African Indigenous Religion
Influenced by ‘Christian Trump-era’
(Theatre review - "Praiseworthy for Alexus Rhone's 'Ancient Of Ways'")
Provocative titles have always been her thing. She entered the world of storytelling by publishing the YA novel Premature Pleasures, targeting reluctant reading teens and pre-teens in urban communities. The title made adults squirm. But it made her target audience squeal - they were excited to read a book that reflected their reality. For many of them, it was their first time reading a book cover-to-cover. Then they picked up another book, and another one, and, before long, they were no longer reluctant readers; they were simply readers.
Artistic theologian and “revolutionary artist” Alexus Rhone hopes to work that same magic with her summer production “Ancient Of Ways: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Ifa When Jesus Came Up Short.” “Ancient Of Ways” is the story of DENISE, a devout Christian woman who drowns her church-folk frustrations in bottomless mimosas at a jazz brunch where she meets WAYNE (ADEYEMI), an attractive man who practices the African indigenous religion Yoruba. Because he is not a Christian, she says they can be “cool, but not close.” Then they get close. The show opens 7:30 PM, Thursday, July 14, 2022, at the historic St. Agnes Hospital (St. Augustine’s University), in Raleigh, NC, and will run through Sunday, July 31.
The discourse and themes woven throughout “Ancient Of Ways” is geared towards adult audiences. As an interfaith love story, Alexus explores the adult-version of love. She admits “it begins with physical attraction. But from Denise and Wayne’s first meeting it is clear that they are both people of substance. When Denise quips, ‘You clearly didn’t grow up in a church,’ and he responds, ‘No, I grew up in a family,’ the audience gets a sense of their formative layers and the nuisances of Black lives.” At the onset, the audience will go behind the curtains to see how Denise and Wayne’s religious ideologies shape their perspectives and life practices. The point is not to decide which one is better, rather to examine how we negotiate pride and place when in relationships with people we value.
As an artistic theologian, Alexus finds art to be the most palatable way to explore “textured terrain”. “Life has become increasingly difficult. Too many of us insist that our way of seeing is the only way. But love and healthy discourse are salvific. Art (and artists) are #solutions in this current era where everyone has a pulpit and a mic, but not always honorable intentions. Artists have always been affable translators, serving the common good.”
Whether she is telling stories on page, stage, screen, web, radio or podcast, Alexus creates characters who have bold conversations, giving us deeper insights and causing us to root for goodness to win, as opposed to a particular side. While her writing is superior, it takes talented translators to convey the script’s nuisances to the audience. For that, she has recruited a solid cast of what she calls “creative collaborators”, a veritable ‘who’s who’ of acting talent in the Triangle-area.
Lebone Moses plays DENISE, the devout Christian woman who is “too-spirited” in her dancing, which is the ultimate dealbreaker for SIS. SHERRI, played by Chanda Branch, who insists that God only wants to see “holy hips” - whether praise dancing on Sunday or at the Saturday afternoon HBCU halftime performance. WAYNE (ADEYEMI), played by Gerald “Lou” Campbell, finds the fight over how a woman moves her hips when dancing to be one of the many silly things that Christians stress over. “It’s easier to control women than it is to insist that men control themselves,” his character opines.
This production is flavored to the bone with lines you will quote and characters you either know or want to know.
The creative process for “Ancient Of Ways” came through many stages. “It has always been a dream of mine to produce a dance production where I cancel the idea of ‘if she dance like that she must be fast’," Alexus said. "Black girls are too often maligned for how we show up in the world. One of our undeniable gifts to humanity is movement. Everybody stops to watch us when we’re ‘gettin’ it in’! First comes joy, then comes judgement.” Alexus wanted to explore dance in a variety of genres - modern, street, hip-hop, HBCU halftime routines, and liturgical/praise dancing. She wondered about who controlled the levers in determining when a dancer had “put too much sauce on it.” “The rubric for movement fascinated me because it seemed to only apply to Black girls. No other group of people is ever told to ‘tone it down’, and that fascinated me - not angered, but genuinely fascinated me.”
When Alexus traced the source of discomfort to church folks ‘blaming’ God, she didn’t want to chase that rabbit. “It felt inconsequential and unsubstantial. That premise did not seem sturdy enough to build a creative piece around.” So she set the story aside.
Then 2015 hits. The news cycles are losing their collective sh*t over one candidate. Every day it seemed something new was revealed - each report darker and more sinister. For the first time, primary care physicians are asking patients, “How are you feeling? Are you experiencing depression?” When that candidate won his party’s primary and then the presidential election, it shocked many people. Alexus’s issue, however, surfaced when the post-election polls reported that “80% of white Christians” voted for someone who was in open violation of all standards of decency. “He lived contrary to every Christian standard I tried to live by, despite the burden. I kept wondering what they saw. We clearly weren’t seeing the same thing.”
In this state of confusion, coupled with a pandemic where we had no clue what the future held, she begin to ask questions about what she had been taught and what she believed - soup to nuts. The shelter-in-place orders provided both time to oneself and distance from others. Virtual panels and forums became a favorite way to pass the time, plugging into panels that offered hope for the future and life hacks for the present. Early in the pandemic, she popped into a virtual space hosted by Black psychologists, many of whom were practitioners of Yoruba. Immediately, she felt at home. Their mission was the healing of the psyche of Black people. The stories they told, the chants, the history, the resilience - they centered Blackness in the midst of a context that devalued Black bodies (the proof was in dead bodies underneath police officer knees, in jail cells, and even within the “safety” of our bedrooms). Devalued Black bodies coupled with a pandemic meant that to survive the moment required intentional, healthy practices.
Alexus now had time, a catalyst, and a sturdy frame on which to hang this story. “I began studying the dissertation of a scholar-practitioner of the Yoruba tradition. I pulled from my conversations with other African Americans studying Yoruba who were no longer convinced Christianity was the only way. I pulled from personal experiences and questions I had. I listened for ancestral and prophetic voices. I heard poet and prophet Audre Lorde’s voice more than others. I also listened to Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin. But mostly Audre Lorde.”
After outlining and completing the first draft, the more she talked about the project, the more excited people got. It was a compelling premise, the “textured terrain” made palatable by telling it as a love story. When she sampled a scene between Denise and Wayne at Sips&Scripts, a virtual gathering of actors, playwrights and critics, "the virtual space went nuts!" she remembers. "They loved everything about it - the conversation, the movement, the potential for conflict and having to the make the impossible choice of picking a side. I knew that I had something special.” Later, she staged a live reading at CAM-Raleigh and invited theater lovers in the Triangle to come out. At the conclusion, one of her angel investors (who had flown in from LA) said, “It’s time. Let’s do this!"
The final detail was locating a venue. Like most people, Alexus had been rearing to get back into the swing of things. She was also hesitant to move too quickly. In search of creative solutions for art-makers, she began studying “Creative Placemaking,” a research document that highlights the creative connections art/ists make in public spaces. Alexus has grown to love being outside, especially at sunrise and sunset. Affectionately called “the golden time of day,” Alexus insists they are the two best shows on earth. “And they’re free,” she laughs. “Actually, they’re priceless,” she corrects herself.
Since arriving to the hallowed grounds of Raleigh, North Carolina three years ago, she has loved the historic St. Agnes structure - the shell of a former hospital, a relic, and a reminder that once upon a time there was a targeted approach to restrict where Black bodies could be born and nursed back to health. “St. Agnes is so beautiful to me. One side of the structure is an adjacent parking lot for patrons, and the other side is beautiful green-space where we will build South Park Village, a community in Houston, Texas, the setting for the play. My set designer and I are going creatively mad #reimagining all the possibilities at St. Agnes."
Billed as “theater on the lawn”, Alexus is using creative tools like lighting the village with lawn lights, inviting guests to bring beach blankets, lawn chairs, and open minds, ready to take the ‘Colored Girl’s journey'. For more information, email email@example.com.
(Stay tuned for reprisal performances of AOW)
St. Agnes Hospital, built in 1909, is a historic building on the campus of St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, North Carolina.