“All of us have the same kinds of dreams for our kids, right?” – Ted Swartz, Learning to Play
Ever since my son was born a few months ago, my mind has been wandering off into to the future, placing all sorts of outlandish hopes on his fragile pink shoulders. Maybe he’ll be a shooting guard, I’ll think, as I rock him to sleep during March Madness. Maybe he’ll be a guitar hero, I’ll think, as I drive him to daycare with the radio cranked up. Maybe this, maybe that, all of them rooted to some degree in unfulfilled fantasies of my own.
Then there are the little worries that bubble up. What if he develops some debilitating mental illness? What if he can’t stand me when he’s older? What if he has reactionary politics?
Ted Swartz, left, and Justin Yoder in Learning to Play. Image from Ted and Company.
Anyhow, I’m just trying to map out the psychology of parenthood, which is tricky new terrain for me, and which I hope to be exploring in some way until happily ever after, and which sets the stage for my recent visit to Court Square Theater for the Harrisonburg premiere of Learning to Play, the newest show by Harrisonburg’s very own Ted Swartz.
The play is about a guy whose: 1) wife has just died, 2) son has just come out to him, and, 3) church is trying to figure out if and how people who come out can belong. Elements 1 and 2 are fictional, as far as Ted Swartz the playwright is concerned. Element 3, though, is quite real. Determining policy re: people in same-sex relationships is presently driving a wedge deep into Mennonite Church USA and related institutions like Eastern Mennonite University.
Originally commissioned for a church conference, Learning to Play is, in Ted’s words, “about church, about fatherhood, about community … about our sexuality. And hopefully it’s an entertaining and enlightening piece about openness and love.”
Ted says Learning to Play isn’t intended to come firmly down on either side of the ongoing debate in the church; rather, it’s supposed to be “cathartic for as many people as possible.”
“We’re never going to agree on everything, but is it possible for us to live in that paradox, that dichotomy?” he writes. (Having seen it, it’s hard for me to interpret the play as anything but an appeal for a more accepting church, but then again, that may be a product of my own bias and hope.)
Regardless, it was powerful. The opening scene, in which Ted’s character reflects on the ways his son delighted and disappointed him over the years, hit me right in my new-parent gut. Sometimes I also worry that my son is gay, and then I worry about why that possibility manifests as worry, rather than the simple curiosity like I feel about, say, his eventual eye color, or the hope I have that he’ll be left-handed like me. What does that say about me? The world I live in? This is heavy stuff for a Sunday matinee, but important to grapple with.
And, like all of Ted’s work that I’ve seen (a good bit of it, over the years), Learning to Play is funny. Really, and I’m saying that as someone generally predisposed to dislike Bible- or church-themed attempts at entertainment.
Most of the humor is an inside joke, in a way. You have to know about Job’s misadventures to get the Job jokes. The play’s a lot funnier if you’ve actually tried reading Leviticus with a straight face, and have some idea how St. Augustine of Hippo figures into church history. And its single most hilarious moment – involving “the gay More-with-Less cookbook” – is probably only hilarious if you know what More-with-Less is. (Even more so if you’re familiar enough with the Mennonite cookbook oeuvre to appreciate why it’s more subversively funny to talk about a gay More-with-Less than, say, a gay Simply in Season.)
Which brings me to another major Life Issue. I get these inside jokes because I grew up in the Mennonite church. I’m basically a backslider these days, but contented with the influence that church background has had on my life. There’s the basic enrichment bit – familiarity with this stuff is, like it or not, part of being a literate American – and there’s the role-modeling thing that the church provided for me, and there’s the basic sense of belonging. There’s a tribal aspect to Mennonitedom that remains important to me and many of my peers, even as we backslide away from church on Sunday and confront the identity issues raised by the fact that church on Sunday has historically been at the heart of Mennonitedom.
Of course, like most of my Life Issues, this has morphed into a Parenting Issue since Alex was born. As the play drew to a close, a new fatherly worry occurs to me: that, two or three decades hence, he won’t get jokes about Job or laugh about the gay More-with-Less or feel some sort of connection to this tradition that’s been important to his parents and grandparents and on up the chain. It’s a worry, though, that I have far greater power defeat than things like cancer or car crashes. Maybe I’ll start showing up on Sunday again, for his sake.
It’s a troubled time for the Mennonite church, and I’m a troubled, marginal Mennonite. That Ted’s new play about a troubled issue has me seriously thinking about marching right back into the fold – being physically present on Sunday mornings at least, for the sake of my son’s moral education – says a lot. If you’re a new parent, if you’re a current or former or potential church-goer for whatever reason, if you’re in need of a laugh about St. Augustine the Hippo, if you’re curious about the issue du jour in a denomination of considerable significance to Harrisonburg and environs, if you’re interested in sexuality’s relationship to religion in general, if you’re simply into supporting local performing arts, whatever: go.
Learning to Play returns to Harrisonburg on Friday, June 6, and Saturday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m. at Court Square Theater. Tickets available here.