Thursday, September 20, 2007

Laughing In the Dark…Auditorium

I took my mom to see Chonda Pierce on Sunday, at the Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga (just blocks from where I was born, at the then-Women’s Hospital on McCallie Street…look for the historical marker). Chonda is one of the top Christian comics in the country (which would mean "in the world" as well, given the demographics involved--not too much competition for that title in Bulgaria, for example). Her material is aimed at women, but anyone with a sense of humor can appreciate her comedy, especially anyone who grew up in the church; still, I was glad to have my mom there as an "excuse" to be in the audience made up mostly of ladies.

This performance was a live video shoot, the second of two over the weekend that will be edited into a DVD release*. The Sunday "matinee" we attended was great, and the floor was nearly full, but I sensed the Saturday night before had been a higher-energy experience. But there's much to be said for seeing a performer when she feels she can let her hair down (so to speak).

*This sentence was trickier to compose for me than it would seem. I've gotten in the habit of avoiding saying "filmed" in order to be more precise (or "anal" as some might call it); when you're using videotape you're not "filming," you're "taping" or "shooting" or "recording." But now the term "taping" is not likely to be correct because of direct-to-disk technology has eliminated the tape. And "filming" has been so widely used (or misused) its meaning is becoming more and more separate from its origin, so it's approaching being "correct" as a metaphor if not as a literal term. On top of that, it wasn't just that they were recording a live performance; the whole point of the performance was the recording of it, so the video folks made no attempt to hide the process, so it wasn't just that they were recording a concert, they were shooting a video. This meant we were not only an audience, we were actors, such as when they had us provide a few rounds of applause at the beginning so they could use the video and audio to "sweeten" the mix in editing. Sometimes you have to fake stuff to get the truth across.

So ANYway…

We had pretty good seats. The only complaint was that the boom arm of the remote camera, which was based near us, was stretched across our line of sight a good bit of the time. The operator put the camera distractingly close to the top of people's heads, too; if her audience had skewed more toward the Pentecostals, more than one beehive would have needed serious repair.

The first part of the show was pretty loose, and Chonda covered several familiar topics of her lifelong attempts to subvert and/or overcome a strict upbringing, the result of mostly-misguided attempts by her parents and church to be holy. Russ Taff made an “impromptu” appearance to sing a couple of songs, and was feeling much better since the last time I saw him…good for him. I can’t help wishing he’d emote just a tad less and stick closer to the melody…but that’s a songwriter talking. Van Morrison should enunciate, too, but you can’t have everything (“where would you put it?” HA! I kill me.)

Chonda asked what denominations were represented in the audience, and welcomed each that was called out, offering a barb or story or two to make the point (also familiar but true) that religiosity can unfortunately get in the way of the kind of unity Christ intends for His children; we don’t have to sacrifice the essentials to live as one.

In the second part, as she had warned, her subject was more serious. But as she shared her very recent and ongoing experience with clinical depression and some of its roots in her life, complicated in her case by the apparent contradictions inherent in a faith that would seem to transcend the need for anything other than divine intervention, she was funnier than ever, and equally profound. The best performances are often inspired by the worst experiences, as she proved, though I gather she would readily admit that even the most spiritual of people would have a hard time, even on a good day, reconciling the high personal price she's paid for those results we all enjoyed so much.

A couple of gems from the show: a large bald man with a white beard was on the end of the third row center, and as I predicted to my mom, he was a target for Chonda (“Well, it’s nice to see Santa Claus made it!”). I suspect there was some “engineering” that put him there for that purpose (he took it well), but no matter.

In answer to church people (and Tom Cruise, I’d say) who condemn any use of medicine to treat depression, she suggested a response: “If you don’t approve of my using medication for my condition, then why don’t you take off your glasses and drive home!” With a laugh, of course. All about the laughs.

Chonda wasn’t just talking about freedom, she was exhibiting it, especially in the dance portions of the show. Dancing, as she pointed out, is frowned upon by some in the church as sensous (“leads to beer” she quoted her mother as saying). And dancing to disco music…in a John Travolta outfit…even if the words to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” were altered slightly to fit the message (“’Cause when I’m sad, I’m so so sad”)…scandalous. Unless you know about grace. She clearly does (and her mother does, too, judging from how she jumped into the fray for the big finish)…and now so do the rest of us, a little better. [As if the dancing weren’t enough, the intermission music was straight from pop radio; I heard two or three of the tunes on the drive home that evening. Wonder how they managed that?]

My mom stayed with the show the whole time, which was a pleasant surprise given the length of the show and the fact that my mom is not the most patient consumer of live entertainment. But though the show did fail to leave either of us wanting more, we agreed it was worth sacrificing our respective Sunday afternoon naps. And we are people who value our naps, trust me. And her book is on our “would like to read” lists.

I look forward to checking the DVD to see if we made the final cut. I assume the title will have to do with dancing and freedom, since that was the theme. If you want to join the "Where's Waldo" game, my advice is not to blink. But don’t eat or drink a lot before you watch it, either…if you know what I mean.

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