This is the column in which a Baptist pastor will wax eloquent about a play that involves pot-smoking, cursing, sex, anti-war protests and nudity. Now that I have your attention ….
The Dallas Theater Center — which just won the Tony Award for Best Regional Theater in America — has staged a 50th anniversary revival of the tribal rock musical “Hair.” Through a series of odd occurrences, I managed to see the show not just once but three times — and it has left an indelible impression on me. I had seen the show in other productions before — including, oddly enough, a high school production — but this one moved me in ways I could not anticipate.
When it debuted Off-Broadway in 1967, “Hair” was scandalous because of its depiction of the hippie culture, its anti-establishment attitude and its graphic depiction of the human toll of the Vietnam War, which was still going on. Oh, and that nude scene at the end of Act 1.
One of the main characters is a young man named Claude, who hails from Flushing, Queens, but pretends he’s from Manchester, England. Like youth of all generations, an imagined reality seems preferable to the real reality. Claude falls into a group of free-love hippies in Manhattan, and after his draft number comes up, he struggles about whether to join the tribe in burning his draft card. He is torn between loyalty to duty and living the kind of life he really wishes he could live — being invisible and making “lots and lots of money.”
It’s not giving away the plot to say that in the end, while his protesting friends stage another anti-war protest, Claude enlists, ships off to Vietnam and is promptly shot down and killed. Every previous production of this musical I’ve seen ends with Claude’s dead body either wrapped in an American flag or dressed in a military uniform or somehow sanitized. The involuntary dead soldier gets draped in the flag, and we somehow feel better about the whole thing.
But not this time. Under the masterful direction of Kevin Moriarty, the Dallas Theater Center’s Claude does not get draped in the flag or a military uniform. Instead the entire tribe of hippies gathers in the small band pit in the middle of this theater-in-the-round and then, to the shock of the audience, lifts Claude’s buck-naked body out of the pit and carries him aloft like a corpse in a funeral procession straight out of the theater while the ensemble sings one of the show’s great anthems, “Let the Sunshine In.”
He is not dressed in a military uniform. He is not draped in a flag. He is all flesh. And the audience is forced to see, to look and to understand. Here is the reality of war — the real human, flesh-and-blood toll of war — being carried out before our eyes while the idealistic young hippies plead through song, “Let the Sunshine In.”
After seeing the show the first time, I wrote the producer, whom I consider a friend, and told him how moving that scene was, how I wept and how those around me were weeping. How I saw young people under age 30 weeping because they never had been confronted with this story before. And I told him how it reminded me of an experience I had within my first three months on staff at our church, nearly 14 years ago.
During the Lenten season for 2004, we were fortunate to borrow an incredible collection of paintings on the Passion of Christ by the Washington, D.C., artist Ed Knippers. Ed paints in a Baroque style, which, in layman’s terms, means most of the figures aren’t fully clothed. The reason he does so, he explained in an opening reception we hosted that year, is because he believes it is essential for Christians to come to grips with the true humanity of Christ. We easily say we believe Christ was fully human and fully divine, but most of us want to look away when confronted with what that means. Naked baby Jesus in the manger is sweet; naked adult Jesus on the cross is unbearable.
The art show was controversial, and, yes, I would handle it a bit differently today in hindsight. On Palm Sunday, someone threw a large drape over the largest depiction of Jesus on the cross. Others were incensed by the censorship and undraped Jesus. We closed the doors to the gallery space and posted warning signs. Someone stood in the parking lot and directed parents with young children to walk the other way: “Nothing to see here; move along.”
Ironically, that same Lenten season is when Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out. We also rented a theater and took a huge group of folks to see the movie, which has to be one of the bloodiest, grittiest depictions of the crucifixion ever put on film. I don’t recall anyone complaining about that. Americans, you know, can handle violence much more than nudity.
That art show experience and this new production of the musical in Dallas reminded me of the same issue: Shocking as it is, we must be confronted with the humanity of the crises around us. We cannot cover Jesus on the cross any more than we can drape our war dead in American flags in hopes that it will all seem more respectable. We must see the humanity.
The reality is that most of us cannot deal with our own humanity, much less the humanity of others. It is too much to acknowledge what Scripture says, that we are “frail creatures of dust.” That’s hard on our egos. And so we cover ourselves with all sorts of distractions. For the Summer of Love group, that included hallucinogenic drugs — which “Hair” doesn’t exactly portray as a positive panacea, by the way. Today, that drug-escape is not so different from the opioid crisis steamrolling America not mainly among youth but among adults as a way to dull the pain of our own naked reality.
You may recall that the single most powerful image to emerge from the Vietnam War was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Nick Ut of a young Vietnamese girl (later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phúc). The 1972 photo shows the 9-year-old girl running naked on a road after being severely burned by a misguided South Vietnamese napalm attack.
The humanity of that photo — which incidentally Richard Nixon reportedly told his chief of staff he thought was “fixed,” meaning in today’s terms “fake news” — opened the eyes of people the world over to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. That’s what happens when we look beyond flags and uniforms and other niceties to see flesh-and-blood humanity all around us. We are changed.
What the church needs today is to grasp once again the true humanity of Jesus and the God-given humanity of the world around us. When we stop seeing flags and borders and wardrobes and hair styles and stop fearing to acknowledge our own frailty, then we will see the world as Jesus sees it. And we will become more like Christ. And like Christ, we will have nothing left to hide behind.