This Beautiful City

Paul Harvey

O little town of Colorado Springs/how unstill we see thee lie.

My little town certainly draws its fair share of attention nationally. In just the past few years, documentaries such as Jesus Camp and Friends of God, journalistic works such as The Jesus Machine, pieces by Jeff Sharlet in Harper's featuring Colorado Springs as "the new Jerusalem," Ted Haggard's recent appearances on Larry King and elsewhere, and many other cultural productions have featured the city's religious landscape, and I don't mean Pike's Peak or our great rock formations, Garden of the Gods. And the freewheeling village that blends into us just to our west, Manitou Springs, remains blissfully off the national radar, its citizens free to attend Wicca meetings without encountering many "prayer walkers." Remarkably, a number of these documentaries and films arrived here just at the very end of Ted Haggard's reign at New Life Church, and so there's a "before" and "after" aspect that runs through many of them -- or perhaps better put, let's do the time warp again.

Theater hasn't ignored us either. Today's New York Times features a review of "This Beautiful City," a sort of oral history/theater piece put together by "The Civilians," a New York troupe who came to Colorado Springs for ten weeks and conducted numerous interviews with locals on the religious scene here. Like Jesus Camp and Friends of God, the troupe timed its stay with uncanny good fortune, perfectly to coincide with the Haggard scandal. Not surprisingly, then, the production focuses on issues of religion and sexuality.

Based just on the review, it appears the troupe has left behind obvious chances for snark and, to its credit, given full voice to a range of characters not normally associated with my new Jerusalem, including a black minister who comes out to his congregation and a transgendered ex-New Life member. (Pictured is Marsha Stephanie Blake, who plays a preacher who comes out to his congregation in the Civilians’ “This Beautiful City").

Here's an excerpt:

The glazed, slightly crazed smile of Ted Haggard, the leader of a megachurch in Colorado who was ousted in a jiffy after a sex and drugs scandal, makes a cameo appearance in “This Beautiful City,” the latest work of cultural anthropology from the Civilians, which opened Sunday night at the Vineyard Theater. But Pastor Ted’s supersize fall from grace is a story no stranger than many others in this engaging, inquisitive and evenhanded work of theater about the transformation of an American city and many American lives.

The burg of the title is Colorado Springs, just at the foot of Pikes Peak, home both to Mr. Haggard’s former empire, the New Life Church, with thousands of members, and Focus on the Family, the conservative organization run by James Dobson that has been a leader of the charge against gay rights initiatives for years. The Civilians, a troupe of theater artists who construct much of their work from interviews, spent 10 weeks in the city before and after the Haggard scandal broke, collecting impressions from citizens ranging across the social and religious spectrum, from church leaders to embattled
atheists in full bunker mode.

You might assume that members of a hip New York theater company would descend on the country’s epicenter of evangelism like a swarm of junior Michael Moores, wielding tape recorders like rapiers, backpacks stuffed full of snark. But the Civilians, known for the long-running revue “Gone Missing” and other documentary shows, have generally used humor to illuminate our follies rather than to sneer at our frailties. And that is certainly the case in “This Beautiful City,” which presents its collage of human experience without commentary, with a loose focus on the clash between religious orthodoxy and freedom of sexual expression.

Now of course, if this goes to a movie version, the obvious question that everyone will be asking is: who is going to play Paul Harvey? And so, I will ask for you: who is going to play ME? As you know, college religious history professors are hot stuff for theater and movie productions. So, I'm thinking Johnny Depp, or George Cloony, or perhaps Matt Damon. Any other ideas?



Art Remillard said…
Chow Yun Fat. That way, the debate with David Horowitz (played by Steve Buscemi)can have a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon feel. I'd pay 8 bucks to see that.
Brad Hart said…
I'd go with Jack Black! =) That would give it a nice comic edge...a mix of "School of Rock" and "Nacho Libre." Perfect!!!

Or Sean Penn, who would only add to the controversy, and maybe another Oscar nomination!
Howell Williams said…
It's a good show and made an appearance here in Louisville last spring during the Humana Festival of Plays. Several of my Religion in the U.S. students enjoyed it too.

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