“(pray)” might feel at first like a theatrically heightened version of a traditional gospel church service, with church ladies in their Sunday finest preaching and praying, clapping and swaying, and above all, belting out some glorious hymns — all in a theater redesigned with church pews and imitation stained glass windows. But there are signs from the get-go that something else is going on. There is no cross on the wall, no mention of Jesus, and a corner of the room is filled with an ominously lit forest of trees. The clincher, though, are the machetes.
The machetes drop from the rafters about halfway through this seventy-minute show, into the hands of the church ladies, who wield them like pros, chanting ferociously while fiercely slicing the air with them.
What are machetes doing in a play billed as a “sacred offering”?
I’ll take a stab at interpreting. A machete is used as a tool in agricultural labor and also a weapon in warfare, thus evoking an association with both slavery and rebellion against slavery. Shortly after the machetes, a congregant reads an essay about how Black women’s leadership positions in the Evangelical Christian church began during slavery, when they provided children “with comfort and confidence in a system that was designed to subjugate their humanity.” These moments suggest that nicHi douglas, the show’s creator, director and choreographer, wants to make a point about Black women’s search for spirituality in an America hostile to their well-being.
I’ll admit to some pleasure in trying to decode the puzzlements in “(pray).” The poster, for example, gives a clue as to why the title is in parentheses, because it shows the word cupped between two hands that are shaped like parentheses. Could those parentheses be signifying that prayer is something individual that you hold in your own hands?
But the ambiguous injection of a (political?) point into what’s promised as a spiritual experience doesn’t completely work, undermining what is most satisfying about “(pray.)”
And there is a lot to like about this show. It’s beautifully costumed, gorgeously lit, energetically performed by a talented ensemble.
A highlight is the original music by S T A R R Busby, who sings her own songs (accompanied by Darnell White on piano) and whom I have admired since her starring role in “The Beautiful Lady.“; co-written with JJJJJerome Ellis, the music is sometimes as rousing as an old spiritual, sometimes as pleasingly complex as classical jazz.
But the whole enterprise winds up feeling too much like a pose.
“(pray)” is superficially similar to another Ars Nova production at Greenwich House Theater, Heather Christian’s 2022 “Oratorio for Living Things,” which also resembled a religious service, complete with reconfigured space, but it was more focused. It felt more – what’s the right word? – Authentic? Organic?
There are touches in “(pray)” that start to feel like gimmicks. The lobby has signs shaped like those outside a church, including one entitled “A Ritual: Unveiling the Technology Within” with “The Nine Dos Before the Ritual” from “Do remain present, open and curious” to “Do trust in the power of Black femmes” to “Do turn off your cell phone.” The theatergoers are asked at one point during the show to stand and greet a fellow congregant whom we don’t know. The church ladies pass out collection baskets (but one of them gave me the change to put in the basket.) Before we take our seats, we are given blue plastic shoe covers to slip over our worldly clodhoppers in order, we’re told, to respect the holiness of the event — although such covers are used in hospitals and laboratory clean rooms, not in churches.
The purpose of a religious service seems generally to envelop the individuals in a sense of community and spirituality. “(pray)” kept me entertained, but it also kept me at a distance. Maybe those parentheses around the title are barriers.
Ars Nova and National Black Theater at Greenwich House through October 28
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $110 (“name your price”)
Created, directed and choreographed by nicHi douglas
Music by S T A R R Busby & JJJJJerome Ellis
Set design by dots, costume design by DeShon Elem, lighting design by Cha See, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, props design by Noah Mease, dramaturgy by Jadele McPherson (dramaturgy), hair and wig design by Nikiya Mathis, makeup design by Danielle Waugh
Cast: Ariel Kayla Blackwood, S T A R R Busby, Ashley De La Rosa, Tina Fabrique, Amara Granderson, Taylor Symone Jackson, Ziiomi Louise Law, Aigner Mizzelle, Satori Folkes Stone, Gayle Turner, Darnell White, and D. Woods.
Photos by Ben Arons