“Is goodness without God good enough?”
This was the question posed at a post-show debate I chaired at the Bush Theatre in London. It is the the relationship between morality and faith that is at the heart of the play, Perseverance Drive. This is a tale of modern times telling the story of a Bajan family as each member struggles to reconcile faith, morality, relationships and all things in between.
It is a play that begins in the heat of Barbados as the Gillard family lay to rest their mother. As family members come together, so begins the slow unravelling of the complexities of familial relationships. Children and siblings have been cast aside for not following a strict Christian moral code: Joshua, played with skill and compassion by Clint Dyer, is gay and has been estranged from his family; his younger brother Zek was thrown out of the church led by his oldest brother, Nathan, for wanting to marry, Joylene, a woman whose ex-husband is still alive. In the eyes of the church, she is seen as an adulteress. It is in the context of these painful and complex family dynamics that much bigger questions are posed.
I have encountered first hand the impact of religiously zealous behaviour and know only too well how following a stringent code can be detrimental to individuals who are seen to undermine this. Perseverance Drive accurately portrays how familial relationships can be sacrificed in the name of religion; indeed it is harder for family members to support Joshua and his “non-believer” label is a wall between him and his religiously observant brothers.
It is interesting that the story of a black family is told by a white playwright, Robin Soans. There were moments in the first half that I struggled with, particularly in the character of Bishop Clark which felt like a caricature and the funeral scene where histrionics overtook the grief. It felt that we were looking into a family in pain rather than understanding what motivated the family members to treat each other with judgement and without compassion. The audience could observe the characters but could not necessarily connect with them. I wonder whether this was because the play was written by an outsider from the community writing about black people rather than drawing on actual lived experiences. Though when I chaired the panel, a British-Bajan audience member suggested the play had, in their opinion, caught the essence of a Caribbean family, so there are mixed feelings.
The gospel music by Bazil Meade, which accompanies the show, is outstanding and did more to underline the mood of the play then any dialogue possibly could have. I had goosebumps as Lloyd Everitt, the Bishop’s son, stands slightly aside the stage singing to mark the passing of Eli Gillard, the father.
The play came together in the second half. It was the changing dynamic between Eli and son Joshua, who, having had to withstand homophobia and being ostracised for being a non-believer, finds redemption, healing and, finally, understanding. Eli is almost immobile and his care has fallen by the wayside whilst his two sons have been occupied with running their respective churches. In their absence, it is Joshua that cares for him. The audience is asked to question the purpose of organised religion when it is the “non-believer” that is able to show the compassion and care a sick father desperately needs.
The play also posed some very interesting points about the relationship between race, culture and faith. In one very poignant scene, Joshua sits opposite his elderly father and bandages his feet. His father tells the story of how he and his wife started the first black church in their living room as a result of being repeatedly turned away by white churches because the white congregation would not tolerate drinking from the same communion glass. Building the church for their community made it harder for them to be flexible about the religious code when it came to issues like homosexuality; they clung to their faith in a sea of bigotry. As a child of immigrants myself, I wonder how it is possible that parents who have fought so hard against racism and oppression can then perpetuate oppression. Eli’s character felt accurately depicted and so was his journey towards understanding his son as another human being. In this way, Eli’s character is also seen to find redemption by finally accepting his gay son.
An astute audience member asked at the debate whether god was needed for goodness. I wondered myself whether people of faith get so caught up in being “seen to be good” that human will and taking a moral stand take a back seat; people hide behind faith, much like the two Gillard brothers and lose the basic principles of love, compassion and neighbourliness. The play provides a strong, and often painful, critique of organised religion and Robin Soans has done well to weave this narrative in as deftly as he has.
The play, coupled with the debate, posed more questions than it answered, but then that is the nature of faith and dealing with the complexities of family relationships. One of its biggest strengths was to show the journey one has with faith, epitomised by the character of Eli, a father that tempers his strong views through his relationship with his son, Joshua. It suggests that there is still a place for faith in modern times but it is at your peril if that faith blinds you to independent thought and your own morality.
Perseverance Drive is on until the Sat 16 August at Bush Theatre
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Huma Munshi has a background in equality and community engagement, including with faith communities. She is also a the Vice Chair and Equality Officer of her local trade union branch and is a strong advocate for workers’ rights and workforce equality. In between her day job she writes a regular column for Media Diversified and other publications on the subjects she is most passionate about, including gender and race equality, political and civic participation and tackling violence against women.
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