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Theatre, Intolerance, Politics, and Banishing the Darkness

Remember this? When I stood up for the performers of the world and told those audience members just how disruptive and disrespectful it is to allow your phone to ring during a show? Well. It turns out that there's something much bigger brewing in my little theatre world. Something much crueler, nastier, and utterly confounding.







And in the larger theatre world? Politics. Politics getting in the way of art. Or, rather, the allowance of politics to get in the way of art. Dare we forget that art can be a vehicle to teach, inspire, motivate... because once we allow the darkness to shut out the beam of light that is art, we have allowed our doubts and fears to take over.


I now risk unmasking myself, but so I must to continue with my story. Here we go.


The Road to Mecca, by Athol Fugard, is a lovely, grand story about art, aging, trust, and freedom. It begins when Elsa, a young school teacher from Cape Town, arrives announced at the home of her dear friend Helen, an artist in her 70s. Helen had written Elsa a letter that terrified her—we later learn it is full of metaphors about the darkness taking over, not being able to go on, "everything is ending," "Don't you care about me anymore," etc. Scared, Elsa had jumped in her car and driven 800 miles to rush to her friend. When she arrives, however, Helen is just as peppy and cheerful as ever, offering tea and continually changing the subject. Eventually, Elsa forces Miss Helen to talk about the letter, and it's revealed that the Reverend Marius Byleveld is coming that night to get Helen's signature on an application for a room at an old aged home. Elsa is furious and keeps bombarding Helen with reasons why she needn't leave her home, that she must find the strength to say no to the Dominee and prove to him, the village, and herself that can live by herself and continue to make her art.

When the Dominee arrives, however, it comes out that Helen has been having trouble with her eyes and hands and has caused all sorts of little accidents—the last one so frightening that Marius sees no way that she can continue living independently. Marius and Elsa fight over Miss Helen: each believing they know what is best for her, and each loving her so deeply that they fight as if they're fighting for their own lives. Marius simply cannot comprehend why someone would stop going to church on Sundays and instead stay home to make artwork. He ask why she would give up her faith for those "cements monstrosities."


Helen eventually finds the strength to stand up to both of them, and she makes her own decision on her own terms.

The "Road to Mecca" refers to Helen's art—she has spent 15 years making hundreds of owls and pyramids and mermaids out of cement, painting her house in bright colors, crushing beer bottles in the coffee grinder to make glitter for the walls, and lighting hundreds of candles to banish the darkness. By asking her to move to an old age home, Marius is also asking her to accept the end of her Mecca. If she loses her eyesight and the use of her hands, is she still an artist? If she can no longer make her art, then is that equivalent to death? She lights a candle and watches it cry its tears of wax, because she no longer has any tears left to cry. Elsa has been battling her own demons and reveals her own secrets; at the end of the play, Helen tells Elsa to stop screaming and cry instead. She lets Elsa find catharsis in her tears, and then says that now that she has come to the end of her Mecca, she must learn to blow out the candles. The play ends with them laughing about what Helen should do next—maybe she should make an angel, cover it in glitter, have it point east, and "misdirect all those good Christians on the Road to Mecca." Elsa simply says, "God, I love you. I love you so much it hurts."


Mecca is a metaphor. It is, as Elsa says, a "little miracle of light and color." Art is Helen's faith, and creating art is her way of banishing the darkness.

So all that being said, this is an email my theatre received the other day:

Subject: The advertising you're using on facebook for your current play.

Message: I would suggest changing the phrase "find your own Mecca" since there are many people who resent most things of an islamist bent these days...I cannot find "my own Mecca" since I'm not an islamist, nor would I ever consider either joining or supporting such a hateful group of miscreants.

[sic x million]

My director posted it on FB, asking for advice on how to, or even if to, respond. Most people agree that he should not respond at all, some think he should reply with the dictionary definition of "mecca," some think he should calmly and politely explain that this play has nothing to do with religion at all. A couple people think he should reword the ad. One person called the complainer a bigot, and another person declared that calling names is just as intolerant as the original message. I stayed out of the conversation to avoid piling on, and plus, being in the play, I didn't think it appropriate to express my real feelings, which would probably wind up just being a string of curses. Instead, I privately messaged my director with my thoughts and privately thanked the people who I think made excellent points.


This isn't a post to debate the emailer's message: You can probably guess my feelings on it, and I'd like to leave it at that. This is, instead, a post to praise the person who suggested that the theatre give the emailer free tickets to the show, inviting him to see the play in person and to give himself the chance to experience that which he has already made prejudgments against.

Because bigotry, mistrust, prejudice, ignorance, and intolerance happen when we allow ourselves to accept the darkness. But, as Miss Helen so eloquently says in The Road to Mecca:

I had already surrendered myself to what was going to happen when [the candle] went out... but instead of it doing the same, allowing the darkness to defeat it, that small uncertain little light seemed to find its courage again. It started to get brighter and brighter, leading me, Marius... a strange feeling was leading me to a place I had never been before.


If one little candle can show her the way, then can't we all find that same bravery and stand up, shout, cry, and celebrate when we're faced with fear? "All I know about darkness," cries Elsa, "is that that is when you put on the light!"

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