Sampson Bellhammer is an Evangelical Christian Wrestler, who uses the glitz and fury of the wrestling ring as his soapbox to reach audiences with the power of the Gospel. He presents his testimony in the form of onstage conversions of his defeated opponents – other religious figures played by his loyal sidekick Jared Synakowski. The team is rounded out by Tasha Bednarek, the roadie, groupie, and eager costume designer, and the three struggle each week, barely scraping by, to fulfill their God-given calling of sharing the good news with a hurting world.
One night, after the show, a masked stranger, Greg Phillips, divides the team with a proposal. He offers fame and fortune, and all it will cost is one fight. If Sampson will lose to Greg, just once, they can have it all. This puts Sampson’s faith to the test. Greg has clearly convinced Tasha and Jared with his promise of a TV deal, and even playing in Vegas, but Sampson, who has been called by God to win, cannot stomach losing to this shadowy opponent.
When they do fight, and Sampson does lose, he is forced to decide whether he will stay on with the team as the “heel” – the one pre-determined to lose each night in service to the story – or if he will leave. His pride forces him to abandon the group, but his lack of real-world skills means he is not fit for any other life. He returns to patch things up, but is confronted by Greg, and humiliated as a complete fraud. Sampson, ashamed and alone, is lost. Finally, after spending the night in a public bathroom, with no place else to go, he meets a strange old man who gives him the strength to return. God tells Sampson that he must battle the evil Greg, for eternity, or else the rest of the universe will be utterly destroyed. Sampson embraces his cosmic calling, and returns to the ring to engage in supernatural battle. As the lights fade, we know he will be fighting until his body wears out, and the next generation of heroes is ready to take his place.
Cast: 4 (3m; 1f)
Running Time: Approx. 110 min (one intermission)
Bellhammer was developed at Carnegie Mellon University as my thesis play for my MFA degree. It received readings with Trustus Theatre in Columbia, SC, and a workshop production at CMU in February, 2010, directed by Katie Brook.
Professional Wrestling and the Power of the Gospel
This play takes place at the crossroads of Professional Wrestling and American Evangelical Christianity. As a kid growing up in the Deep South, I was baptized at an early age in both cultures. I was drawn to the giants of the wrestling ring as archetypes of masculinity, and also as moral teachers who assured me of the final victory of Good and eventual downfall of Evil. Later, as a scrawny high schooler, I returned to wrestling as a sport – real wrestling – and those moves and memories are still in my muscles today. But somehow they were separated from the primitive power that came from watching those Wrestling performances on Saturday morning TV. This play is an attempt to reintegrate those impulses, and to share my appreciation of both cultures in a new and challenging light.
Professional Wrestlers are both athletes and artists, using a highly evolved set of physical movements to perform a complicated storyline. Each match (or "shoot" as they're known) is carefully choreographed, and performers communicate with each other during the fight using a secret code language known as "Kayfabe". Each move has a particular meaning for a given character, and the true aficionado knows the difference between a Figure Four leg lock, and a Facebuster.
I was interested in exploring this world because of the overlap in the rhetoric used in by Pro Wrestlers, with that of modern Evangelicals. Professional Wrestling seeks to tell a big story in a visceral, sensual way, much as theater artists seek to embody symbols and myths, and Preachers proclaim that Christ, incarnate, came down to Earth. At its purest form, both Wrestling and Christianity struggle with man's relationship to power, how it is embodied, and our place in the universal battle between good and evil.
While Wrestling clearly its own conclusions, Christianity has a more complex relationship with power that deserves closer examination. How do we balance the humility of the sacrificial Messiah, with Christ as the embodiment of an omnipotent God? Moreover, as Christians, how are we to engage with that power in the world, and use it, especially in the face of what we are told is real and threatening evil all around us? This play hopes to explore some of these questions in a world full of characters who are not ashamed to tell their stories in the most blunt and physical terms. And their belief in the ultimate reality of their situation may challenge us, also, to stand up and maybe even fight, for what is important in our lives.
Telling Stories Through the Body
With the workshop production of BELLHAMMER at CMU, director Katherine Brook and I wanted to explore the ways that performers in the ring use their bodies to tell big stories, especially in their expressions of power and masculinity, and in their portrayals of good and evil. In order to translate these impulses to the stage, we decided to create a specific gestural language all our own. With our extremely talented and eager cast (none of who weighed more than 200 pounds, I'll wager) we focused on communicating the intensity of the emotions involved, and the magnitude of the stakes, without being trapped in a literal recreation of the wrestling ring.
To do that, we studied other arenas that sought to embody power. We found images and movement from the martial arts, Japanese Anime, and sports, as well as other genres rich in expressions of masculinity like Rock and Roll (from Elvis and Mick Jagger, to modern thrash-metal rockers like Henry Rollins, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) From these sources, we culled a selection of movements that we could use to tell our story – the play – and we choreographed and rehearsed them until we were proficient in our new physical vocabulary. The result is something stylized beyond what we normally see on a street corner; still vaguely resonant with its cultural origins, but also representative of the deeper reality in which the characters live.
We were drawn to this stylized approach in part because the thrill of Professional Wrestling is not a blood sport; we are in it for the show. We know the moves are "staged" (true fans would never say they were "fake"), but knowing that it's not real – just as we know a theatre performance is not real – does not mean it affects us any less. In fact, we are allowed to enter in to the conflict more fully. Our minds are put at ease that "no one will be hurt", but our bodies still instinctively cringe, wince, and flinch, and we are amazed at the performers’ ability to take a beating. We are defied to believe it. The culture of Professional Wrestling is comfortable with this blatant combination of athletic prowess and artistic sensibility, flaunting its flair for the dramatic and embracing it as part of the experience. (Indeed, the World Wrestling Federation changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment in 2002. Now it's what we pay for.)
Finally, we were fascinated by the role that the audience plays in the wrestling event. Just as each wrestler is conscious about telling a story of betrayal or revenge, the audience plays its part by cheering on the heroes, and booing the villains. In fact, a wrestler without an audience is like a preacher without a congregation; it’s no good unless someone is there to hear the Word.
Our hope is that you will not sit back, but that you will lean forward, cringe, shout, and drink in the joy of being in the room with these amazing performers / athletes / artists, even for a short time, as we all wrestle to tell the story of what it means to be human.
And we hope this is the best Christian Wrestling play you will see all year.
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