Saturday, June 26, 2010
The Eagle Kind ~
Back in the late 70s I used to get up early on Sunday morning (quite a devotion for a teenager) so that I could watch The Reverend R. A. West broadcasting live from Varney, West Virginia. Reverend R. A. sang his own songs, and healed you by having you place your hand on his, via the T.V. screen, and that was plainly magic, scam, or both. The show only presented the Reverend as a talking head, and R. A.'s head was quite engaging. He looked to me, with his brillcreamed slicked-back black hair, like a very unholy cross between Elvis and Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," only not really that good.
Still, he had a flashing full-tooth smile that out creeped Lugosi, and showed a kind of brash confidence in what he was doing that the introverted Elvis never had. I studied every detail of his program.
Then, lo and behold, I discovered that the Reverand R. A. West was coming to my hometown, to stage a revival in the National Guard Armory, an ancient gym where, in high school, I avoided playing basketball in "P. E." (Physical Education - Ha! - as mandatory games were called in those days. I wasn't going there.) I overdressed for the occasion and found a seat in the front middle, next to a young woman with a long gingham skirt and a very large bun on her head.
The Reverand R. A. and his band appeared and began to play, his paraplegic son Jay on the drums, at a startling volume. I had just seen the Rolling Stones at Rupp Arena, and R. A.'s band struck considerably louder. My stomach was throbbing in time to his signature song "He was more than a man." In no time the woman next to me began to nod back and forth and speak in tongues.
The tongues had a lot of "sh" and "sl" sounds. I knew that I could mimic it fairly easily. The nodding grew more violent until two of the goon-looking helpers who were passing garbage cans (in leu of collection plates) got ahold of the woman and moved her into the aisle, where she could flip, like a worm having convulsions, held for her own safety (and to secure her modesty by holding her dress down) until she had exhausted all her energy. The rest of the crowd followed suite, as though the gym were a big popcorn popper full of religious kernals. I began to wonder if I would be found out as an anthropologist, and wondered, also, what the consequences of acting might be in these sort of circumstances. I knew everything I needed to know to perform my own kernal pop, but it seemed dangerous.
The revival went on forever. At a certain point, R. A. gave a long talk about how the lord wanted him to have the yellow shoes he was wearing, and how, for that reason, the expense (presumably extracted from the garbage cans, now on their 7th passing) was not only justified, but a direct expression of the lord's will, punctuated by a series of his cheshire grins.
Then the lord began to speak directly (according to R. A.) to certain 7 members of the audience, compelling them to give $1,000 each. This was repeated several times. Then we went down the scale - 10 were told to give $500 each (I couldn't help, blasphemously, to think that all these were plants in what appeared to be a very very poor audience.) - then 20 to give $100, and so on. By the time they got down to having a 100 give $20 I was ready to join in just to get it over with.
Then R. A. called for anyone who wanted to be healed to come to the front. A line formed of everyone in the audience except me. Two of R. A.'s assistants would hold onto the healie, while R. A. asked them a series of questions concerning what they believed about the power of the lord. These questions had "I believe" as the only possible answer. To answer in the negative, under the circumstances, wasn't possible - everyone there, well almost everyone, certainly believed. Once the questions had worked up to "do you believe the lord is going to heal you right now?" - R. A. would bop them on the forehead with his hand. Immediately the bopped would collapse into convulsions, speaking in tongues as fast as they could go. When they could stand again, they were led to the side and a new healie would step up to the plate. I was torn. Part of me wanted to anthropologize every detail, but part of me wondered if he had a cattle prod-like electrical device secreted in his sleeve. It looked like a jolt. That's how naive I was in those days.
I learned some valuable things about theater that day, and I've never put it to better use than in You'll Always Come Back.