Theatre artist Diane Flacks’ latest play, Unholy, showcases four smart and politically engaged women who meet to debate the question, “Should women abandon religion?” for a YouTube broadcast.
Not surprisingly, the discussion that ensues quickly moves into more complex territory than the query proposes. Much of this is because, as the feminist adage goes, “The political is the personal and the personal is the political.” The audience soon discovers that each panellist has been shaped by her life experiences at least as much by as her intellectual inquiries.
Flacks plays feminist lesbian writer Liz Feldman-Grant, who has moved from Judaism to antitheism. Her view is that there is no reason for religion in our era.
Barbara Gordon is Margaret Donahue, a 70-something excommunicated nun who still calls herself a Catholic.
Barbara Yaraghi performs Maryam Hashemi, a young, single, feminist Muslim, and Niki Landau plays Yehudit Kalb, an Orthodox Jew, who is a spiritual leader and the mother of three children.
Flacks concedes that her work is not breaking entirely new ground, but claims that, though this is 2017, religion continues to be viewed as the standard for moral behaviour. “We need to fight for the right to be outside the circle of accepted norms,” she says.
She says she wrote the play to give voice to people who passionately represent different religious viewpoints. She also wanted to examine various ways of adhering to religion.
“Certain religious perspectives may be damaging or harmful, but there is so much positive that religion and faith can offer. There is no simple answer,” Flacks says. Given that understanding, she counterbalanced the debate scenes in Unholy with flashbacks to moments in each character’s life when her faith was “terribly challenged.”
The seed of the play was a monologue Flacks wrote about a lesbian who is an antitheist. Later she developed a character who is an ex-nun. Flacks found that she was hugely enjoying researching and creating these lives, and she decided to keep going. Yehudit, the Orthodox Jewish woman character in Unholy, grew from the work Flacks did for Yihud, a play by Julie Tepperman about Jewish weddings and marriage. The Maryam role resulted from Flacks’ desire to explore the life of a progressive Muslim woman.
Like the character she plays in Unholy, Flacks is Jewish, a feminist and a lesbian, who grew up in North York, a suburb of Toronto. Her schooling was at the Associated Hebrew Schools and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. She speaks Hebrew and she “spent time” in Israel. She loves biblical stories and is fascinated by religion. But her relationship with her faith began to change when she found that her teachers weren’t always open to questions about Jewish law. Much later, when her son spent the first year of his life at the Hospital for Sick Children, she stopped being a believer.
However, that same year, she discovered “how kind and compassionate and thoughtful people can be,” and realized people could be godly.
She concedes that her play could exhort women to claim leadership in their faith communities or to be the driving force in changing liturgy and religious laws. “But we’ve tried that,” Flacks concludes. She would rather invest energy in working to achieve social and political power equal to that of men.
Her current view is that religion isn’t necessary in our era because it doesn’t inevitably inspire decent behaviour. Rather, according to Flacks, it is human instinct that moves us to show compassion and to help one another.
In any case, Flacks didn’t write Unholy to prove a point or to come to a conclusion about religion. She wanted to investigate religion through the eyes and lives of four female characters in order to motivate audience members to examine the role of religion in their own lives. Flacks says she is truly gratified when, after a show, she overhears audience members eagerly discussing scenes from Unholy.