Staged Reading of a Biblical Text Speaks Healing Into This Present Moment

Staged Reading of a Biblical Text
In this July 1, 2020, image taken from video, actors David Zayas, Frankie Faison, Kimberly Hebert, Jumaane Williams, David Strathairn, and Jeffrey Wright perform in a virtual production of "The Book of Job Project."
Theater of War Productions via AP
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Dec. 6, against the backdrop of a pandemic's blight and wounds from an acrimonious election, a group of acclaimed actors staged an online reading of a religious text with remarkable relevance to the current moment: the Book of Job.

Audience members might have been drawn to the production by the casting of Bill Murray as Job, the righteous man tested by the loss of his health, home, and children, but the real star was the format. Staged on Zoom, it was aimed at Knox County, Ohio, with participation from locals including people of faith, and designed to spark meaningful conversations across spiritual and political divides.

After the performance, several people from the area were asked to share their perspective on the ancient story in a virtual discussion. It was then thrown open to some of the scores of others signed in, no matter their location. One young woman studying social work shared that Job's judgment at the hands of others during his suffering inspired her to reflect on "how I am practicing empathy" during the coronavirus.

The structure of a dramatic reading followed by open-ended dialogue is a fixture of Theater of War Productions, the company behind the event. Artistic director Bryan Doerries is an alumnus of Kenyon College in Knox County and chose the area to focus on bridging rifts opened by the election and sharing the pain of a pandemic that's tied to more than 275,000 U.S. deaths.

By using Job's story "as a vocabulary for a conversation, the hope is that we can actually engender connection, healing," Doerries said. "People can hear each other's truths even if they don't agree with them."

The performance was headlined by Murray and featured other noted actors such as Frankie Faison and David Strathairn. The cast also included Matthew Starr, mayor of the Knox County town of Mount Vernon, who played Job's accuser. He said the timing is perfect for the moment the country is going through, between the pandemic, the heated election and racial justice protests.

His hope is that the event and the dialogue afterward lead to less shouting and more listening. And a good story like that of Job can do so more effectively than a new law or a new directive, by changing people's hearts, said Starr, a Republican and supporter of President Donald Trump who founded an independent film company before going into politics.

"God does not say that bad things aren't going to happen, but he does tell us, when they do, we're not alone," Starr said.

Knox County, a largely rural community of about 62,000 residents including a medium-size Amish population, lies about an hour east of the state capital, Columbus. Despite its numerous farms, most people in the county work blue-collar manufacturing jobs at several local factories.

The county, which is 97% white, voted for Trump by a nearly 3-1 margin in November and also went overwhelmingly for him in 2016.

An exception is Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school perched on a hill a few miles outside Mount Vernon. Voters in the precincts comprising the college and the village of Gambier voted 8-1 for President-elect Joe Biden.

To help prompt more locals to engage in the post-reading conversation, Doerries worked with leaders from multiple faith traditions. Among them is Marc Bragin, Jewish chaplain at Kenyon, who said he hopes the experience can help people who share bigger values look beyond their differences.

Bragin, administrator of a project backed by the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core that partners Kenyon students with counterparts at nearby Mount Vernon Nazarene University, said he's hopeful they will attend the discussion and take away an important lesson: "Surround yourself with people who aren't like you," he said, "and you can have such a bigger impact on your community, your world."

Theater of War hosted its first Job reading in Joplin, Missouri, a year after a tornado killed more than 160 people there in 2011. The company has performed more than 1,700 readings worldwide, harnessing Greek drama and other resonant texts to evoke deeper dialogues about an array of issues.

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