Friday, March 28, 2008

Humana Festival discovers "This Beautiful City" The journalistic musical examines Colorado Springs' rise to evangelical capital of America

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When New York actor Stephen Plunkett first set foot in the New Life mega-church in November 2006, "it was baptism by fire," he said.

It was the Sunday morning when founding pastor Ted Haggard's resignation was read to an overflow crowd of more than 18,000. Everywhere Plunkett looked, he saw national media spilling into the aisles alongside weeping evangelicals.

This was the start of a continuing creative odyssey in which six members of The Civilians theater company would infiltrate and explore Colorado Springs' rise to unofficial evangelical capital of the United States. The actors' interviews with hundreds of Coloradans, from former and fervid New Life parishioners to liberal activists to Air Force Academy cadets to surrounding church leaders, resulted in "This Beautiful City," an original musical in the journalistic tradition of "The Laramie Project."

The goal: "To responsibly explore how faith intersects with public life, and ultimately, how that reflects what's happening in our country," said Civilians actor Brad Heberlee, who also performed in the Denver Center Theatre Company's "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" last year.

"This Beautiful City" was one of six featured works at this weekend's 32nd Humana Festival of New American Plays, the most prestigious of its kind. Stagings are slated for top theaters in Washington and Los Angeles before an anticipated New York run.

Natural home for evangelism

It tells the explosive and even surprising story of how the confluence of Focus on the Family, the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, NORAD and the anti-gay Amendment 2 movement made this city at the base of Pikes Peak the logical place for evangelism to germinate and grow over the past 25 years.

That's about when a 19-year-old Haggard, fasting at the south base of Pikes Peak, first envisioned what would become the largest church in Colorado. "What is the purpose of New Life Church?" he has asked rhetorically ever since. "To make it hard to go to hell in Colorado Springs."

The Civilians chose Colorado Springs even before Haggard's downfall because co-writer Jim Lewis is a native and Colorado College graduate. But Haggard's lurid sex and drug scandal with a male prostitute was no doubt the catalyst that has propelled their piece into the national dialogue.

And New York actress Emily Ackerman didn't want to come.

"I was scared to go," she says flatly. "All we've ever heard in New York about conservative Christians is that they are mean and hateful and hurtful, and that they legislate against friends of mine."

But instead she found warm and friendly people eager to explain who they are. People who welcomed her to their dinner tables and shared their intimate stories. "I realized that, actually, they have a really strong, incredible community . . . and they wanted us to be a part of that, because it works for them," Ackerman said.

"This Beautiful City" is a lightening-rod piece of theater, to be sure. But while it is agenda-driven, it drives all sorts of agendas, and you hear from all sorts of people.

From those who put the pieces of New Life back together. From homophobes, radical activists and the transgendered. From evangelicals who scraped themselves up from gutters to find new life at New Life. From the Jewish father of an Air Force cadet who cites the general who told The New York Times that "it is the Air Force's official policy to evangelize anyone who comes into the service 'unchurched.' "

And perhaps most refreshingly and unnervingly, from Marcus Haggard, eldest of five siblings. Not many have heard from Marcus, who in 2004 started the Boulder Street Church as a satellite of New Life.

Turns out, not many have asked. Plunkett did.

"We share a bond because we're both preacher's kids," said Plunkett, who took 45 minutes to work up the courage to ask Marcus about his dad.

"He said, 'Of course I'm willing to talk about this,' " Plunkett said. " 'Not talking about this is what got us into this problem in the first place.' "

Plunkett portrays Marcus in the play as a nice and open young man who, when hearing about his father's liaisons, admits to an initial shock that soon dissolved into, "Huh. . . . Yeah, there could be some truth there."

Marcus, who resigned last month to return to school, was most disappointed that his father lied when busted. "It's like when a criminal gets caught, and all of a sudden, they're like, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' " Marcus is quoted as saying. "No, you're not! If you hadn't gotten caught, you'd still be doing it!"

Another gay pastor

Haggard's fall propels but does not define the musical's second act, which is poignant and presciently paralleled with the much quieter resignation by the Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, senior pastor of the nearby Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church. He came out as gay to his Colorado Springs congregation just a week before Haggard was outed.

Actress Marsha Stephanie Blake interviewed an Emmanuel choir member who practically reveled in Haggard's downfall. Part of the reason is race.

"It's black versus white, and the two communities very rarely intersect on any level in Colorado Springs," said Blake, who is black. "A lot of black people I talked to said the economic development of Colorado Springs hasn't included the black population, and now there is a huge divide. A lot of black people feel like the white evangelicals are crazy — and they use that word. They believe the white evangelical view of the world is not equivalent to the black, Baptist Christian view of the world."

Blake portrays the choir singer, whom she describes as "quite a lovely, open and maternal lady," as also extremely homophobic. She also plays the male successor to Reynolds, who delivers an electrifying sermon that makes the pure, soul-stirring and theatrical power of evangelical oratory plain to anyone in the audience, regardless of religious belief.

The purpose of "This Beautiful City" is not to deliver a blistering satire, but to start a dialogue "because we are all sinners, and we all struggle," Ackerman said. To do otherwise would have been a disservice, Blake said.

"When you ask people to tell you their deepest, darkest secrets, then you have a responsibility not to use that to make fun of them," she said. "But we've been attacked and complimented by both groups, and I think that's kind of good."

The Civilians have performed rough readings of their musical at Colorado College, which hosted them in residence for five weeks in 2005, and in New York.

"The things people laughed at in New York were not at all the things that they laughed at in Colorado Springs," Ackerman said. "When I said, 'Every day I pray to Jesus in my car on my way to work,' people in New York laughed at that. But in Colorado, people were like, 'Yeah, I do that, too.' "

While the rise of evangelism isn't new to Coloradans, Blake thinks "This Beautiful City" will deliver a bigger shock to a New York audience.

"That's because I am a New York liberal, and I do think this piece is frightening. Just the idea that this rise in evangelicalism is not contained to Colorado Springs. It's spreading. And it's creeping into various parts of all our lives without our even realizing it. So it is actually quite threatening."

John Moore: 303-954-1056 or

[Photo Caption: Emily Ackerman, left, with Katie Gold, Elizabeth Gilbert and Ashley Robinson in "This Beautiful City" at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays.]