It didn't take long for things to get very awkward last night at the first performance of Get Mad at Sin!, actor Andrew Dinwiddie's uncannily faithful reenactment of a Jimmy Swaggart sermon, delivered in Van Buren, Ark. and released on vinyl in 1971 under the title The Ring of Fire: A Message for the Young People of Today.
Let me back up a moment: Andrew Dinwidde is a New York actor, who has undertaken to perform a 40-year-old sermon on the dangers facing youth in America. It is not a satire, or some sort of metatheatrical statement. Dinwiddie has studdied the way Swaggart spoke, moved and wore his hair during the evangelist's glory days, before the television fame and the Swaggart Bible College and the prostitute and the much-mocked tearful apology.
At this week's Time-Based Art festival, Dinwiddie is channeling Swaggart in a tent outside Washington High School, intended, I assume, to evoke the feel of a good ol' fashioned revival. It does not. Sure, there are bare bulbs overhead, a raked runway down the middle of the room and a smell in the dusty air that I associate with county fairs and cattle yards, and that's all sort of ol' fashioned, but the revivals I attended with friends—rural revivals, mind—happened indoors. And even if the tent did not feel like budget television set piece, it was full of skinny white people wearing black t-shirts and tiny glasses (and Oregonian theater critic Marty Hughley, who while not white does have tiny glasses). How many of them had been to a church service in the last 20 years, let alone a revival?
And thus the awkwardness: I sat between two of these tiny-eyeglassed baby boomer honkies, who were determined to find the whole affair hilarious. I don't know why; Swaggart's sermon deals with teen pregnancy, addiction, pharmaceutical dependency, the evils of oversexed advertising and epidemic syphilis and gonorrhea—and the dangers of rock 'n' roll, sure, but mostly the other stuff. While I believe Swaggart misdiagnoses the cause (he thinks it's all the devil's fault, naturally) he's not wrong about the symptoms.
He also says some really scary things. In the first five minutes of the sermon, he laments the Supreme Court's then-burgeoning anti-death-penalty movement, saying, "when the bible says, 'thou shalt not kill,' it doesn't mean the death penalty. It means thou shalt not commit murder." The minimyopics on either side of me thought this very funny and quaint, as if Rick Perry hadn't expressed the same view last week, to loud cheers from his bloodthirsty audience.
They laughed and they laughed, to the point that those lines that were actually funny were diminished by the nervous chuckling at the unfunny rest. A pity; this is gold:
You boys and girls that have Beatle records at home, this is the most rotten, dirty, damnable, filthy, putrid filth that this nation or the world has ever known. And you parents that would allow this filth to be in your home, you ought to be taken out somewhere and horsewhipped, you hear me. And I mean it, my friend.
I think the laughter was a nervous self-defense mechanism. The sort of people who go to TBA are largely, I believe, uncomfortable with the idea of religion, or at least the idea of fundamentalism, and they only way they can process a performance like Dinwiddie's is to mock. That's a shame, because Get Mad at Sin! is a real dramatic achievement. Dinwiddie has obviously thought enough about the context of the sermon and Swaggart's career to imbue the performance with reality. There's no obvious interpretation—the performance is, again, completely straight-faced—but there's a lot going on beneath the surface. Swaggart pauses several times in the sermon to linger upon the physical beauty of the young women who tell him about their troubles. We have to wonder—had he already lost the battle with his own temptation? Could he see the day coming when he would be weeping on national television, begging forgiveness for his trespasses? We can't know, and Dinwiddie doesn't give any obvious indication of his opinion. But we wonder, nonetheless.
Jonathan Walters, artistic director of Portland's Hand2mouth Theatre, told me after the show that he would like to have seen Dinwiddie perform before a split audience: one half Portland atheist art-lovers and one half teenage evangelicals. So would I—it might have quelled the snickering.
SEE IT: Andrew Dinwidde performs Get Mad at Sin! at 6:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 14-17 at Washington High School, Southeast Stark Street and 14th Avenue. $20. Tickets at pica.org. PICA's Time-Based Art festival continues through Sept. 18.