My mother firmly believes that you don’t really know who you are, as a person, until your mid-30s.
Of course, when hearing this at a younger age, it can sound like one person’s generalization with no regard for the fact that everyone has their own trajectory, the fact that no two people should ever be lumped together because we are all just so damned unique.
However, I have to admit, that now being in my mid-30s, I suppose I know what she was on about. Not to suggest that I fully understand who I am. No, more like I get a glimpse of where people in my life are likely to land, and perhaps what the general direction I’m leaning towards might be shaped like.
In Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, we are presented with a young version of Jesus, who hasn’t quite dealt with his lot in life. While the title and set up of Suh’s play might have us assume we are headed into a religious examination of Jesus and his beginnings, he instead makes a point of using such an iconic identity to explore just how lost each of us are, regardless what sort of destiny we may have been handed.
“I feel like there’s something that’s been happening over the past several years that has to do with re-examining our big cultural markers,” says Suh. “You see it in movies with these ‘reboots,’ where Batman begins, or Star Trek happens. I love these ‘prequel’ stories because they’re a way to examine not just how our heroes become themselves, [but] for us to assess what those icons mean in terms of how we live now.”
In the play, Suh presents us with a young Jesus on the road, fleeing Galilee to find himself and experience life. By his side is Abigail who is and has always been in love with Jesus. Along his journey, Jesus joins a punk rock band with Gopal and Sushil, a young Maharaja. “There’s almost nothing out there—certainly nothing in the gospels—that tells us anything about what Jesus was doing between the ages of 12 and 30,” notes Suh. ” They just leave that part out, which I find incredibly convenient; I mean, I would love to pretend that a lot of what I did during those ages never actually happened. It’s a time when you test things out before you have to actually become who you’re going to be, and of course those years are going to be filled with embarrassing stories, experimental identities, and regretful haircuts. We test our limits, we make mistakes, and through those experiences we eventually find ourselves.”
In Jesus in India, which opens February 13 in a Ma-Yi Theater production, it is through these experiences that Jesus not only begins to realize his potential, but also falls in love and has a child. While the play brings Jesus toward his true calling, it is foremost a story about Jesus’s finding himself in a very humorous and contemporary way.
You don’t even know where we are! But great, never mind me, who cares what Abigail thinks, who cares what the maps say or the meticulously orchestrated schedule that she so carefully constructed in order to give some sense of process or order or destination to this entire fucking stupid fucking tortured fucking exodus——
Look, maybe I just need some “me” time.
People love to watch stories about heroes, criminals, the gifted and the powerful. While we enjoy watching the illustration of rare talent, of true recklessness, of what success looks like, we also find comfort in the fantasy that some people are just born who they are, and their path was nothing more than a carrying out of God-given destiny. But in truth, I would venture to suggest that every person in the history of the world has felt completely alone, completely failed, and completely without any real confidence about where they belong. And just maybe anybody who tells that differently is more lost than even they know. As Suh shows us a young man who is told he is the son of God, it somehow lifts us up, as his reaction is that of any young person introduced to a world much bigger than them.
It’s like let’s say you’re a oh, I don’t know, a fish. Right? And let’s say you’re living large in the sea and all your life you’ve been like a pretty flippin’ happy fish dude with decent fish digs and plenty of fine fishes for friends and it’s all fun and good until one day you’re out flippin’ yer fish flips and you see some kinda reflection of something in the ceiling of the sea. And you look up. And for the first time in ever you realize there’s more to the world than the big blue waters you’ve been livin’ in. Maybe there’s a big blue sky too. And maybe that big blue sky’s the kinda big blue scene for you. Maybe it’s not. But you gotta know, don’t cha? Or maybe you don’t gotta know.
Some things that begin (or continue) to happen in your mid-30s, are that babies are born, those babies become children, marriages begin, some of those same marriages end, houses get bought in cities you never thought you’d have a reason to even visit, meanwhile other people return to buy houses in parts of the world they were from originally, the parents of your friends begin to die, and you begin to feel horribly ashamed that you’ve still sorta been waiting for your life to begin.
In Suh’s world, the young Jesus surrounds himself with characters that also wait for some sign of a life to show itself. Heartbreakingly, he also gives us characters who seem positive that no such sign will show itself to them as individuals, and so—almost instinctively—they attach who-they-will-become to another person. Something I’d also suggest we’ve all done at one time or another.
Look, I know I’m nothin’. I know I’ve gained about five pounds and I got this zit on my forehead, I know I’m a smelly orphaned hideous miserable turd who doesn’t deserve real love, but—
I didn’t need you to like, love me. Or whatever. I just wanted to be—just a part of it, you know, some small tiny measly stupid part of your beautiful goddamn existence.
Because I guess I thought the one way I might ever be somebody, or do something worth a damn in this life was to hitch my wagon to you.
Cause I thought that you were something special.
That you were gonna…
I don’t know.
Guess I was wrong.
Maybe we all have this hope that some underlying destiny is beneath us, guiding us, giving us small hints along our way. Like when talent finds us. Like when something we’re good at or something we love shows itself to us. What gives me hope in Jesus in India is that regardless what kind of experiences the character of Jesus needs to go through, no matter what travels he needs to travel, always there are these glimpses of somebody who has something inside of them waiting to be called upon.
(Jesus stands alone. Gopal enters carting a drum set, Sushil with a guitar and a bass for Jesus, he hands it to him.)
I had this bass hand-built for you by woodcraft artisans using the rare infant tusks of albino rinoceri.
(They strap on their instruments)
So use your right hand to hit the strings with this kinda motion and with your left hand you press down on those little frets (those things are called frets) and that creates sound.
(Jesus starts playing along and is immediately amazing. The boys stop and stare. Jesus stops playing with an elegant etude.)
Hey that was not bad.
Yo, Jesus dude, are you sure you’ve never played bass before?
Perhaps talent seems an inaccurate way to think about all this. As though each of us is sitting by waiting for some special skill to rise up from our person and show itself in front of a room of applauding strangers. Like some movie. In real life how many of us work some job where there is nothing to even dream about, how many people marry and begin families with somebody who is decent enough, but hardly anything star crossed?
The distance between what we imagine for ourselves and where we wind up is usually a stretch of geography, time, and transformed hopes. One wonders how we even waste so much time worrying about how it will all turn out. As if our worrying means anything against the immeasurable weight and command of what-life-just-brings.
We know that we are sinners.
We know that we have caused pain that we must atone for.
We know that there are children we will abandon,
And parents we will disappoint.
But he knows what he has to do to make it stop.
Jesus will tell me that what he has learned in India is that life is a circle.
That we will suffer,
and we will die,
but we will be born again,
Suh maintains that the spiritual element of his play is crucial. “While I think of the play as primarily about growing into adulthood, rather than quite so literally or academically about the navigation of historical religious traditions,” he says, “I also think that in order to answer that question of ‘who am I?’—whether you’re Jesus or Batman or anybody—you ultimately have to answer very big questions about the nature of existence, your relationship with the world and with faith and with philosophy and with whatever God you might believe in (or not).”
Perhaps with this specific, sometimes contemporary take on Jesus, Suh is putting out a hope that people will take down their idols from a glorious pedestal, while at the same time lifting the rest of us up from looking at our existence as something so finite and settled. Instead, perhaps our Rather something that will twist and turn along with rest of the universe, an ever changing identity with cuts and scabs, with good and bad, with scars, but also new skin always somehow reinventing itself.
Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh, directed by Daniella Topol, plays the Theater at St. Clement’s February 13 – March 10;produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company.At 423 West 46th Street, NYC 10036. For tickets and more information, visit: http://ma-yitheatre.org/onstage/jesus-in-india