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July 17, 2011
A wise, non-brown nosing commentator once stated that the potential purposes of art are to ‘enlighten, entertain and/or shock.’ In a media controlled era when stories are routinely picked up and put down according to bribes received for the purpose of hoodwinking and misleading readers doggedly attempting to plow their way through a myriad of celebrity tattle in the popular, (rather than populist) press, tiny glimmers of truth emerge, generally under the mantles of the futile and ridiculous. Now that the mirror, like the worm, is slowly turning, there’s renewed hope that truth, like its’ steadfast companion, activism will eventually win out.
Reverend Billy aka Billy Talen has been enlivening the streets of NYC with his unique blend of activism and entertainment since his Times Square ‘sermons’ of 1994. Singers began to gather round, the StopShopping Choir began, and after fighting the evils of consumerism via an ever changing lineup and continually expanding repertoire, the Church of Earthallujah was born.
‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ from Shakespeare’s Hamlet prominently adorns the wall above the stage in Conway Hall, stretching its words across like outstretched arms at a revival meeting…
Newspapers generally, (there are excetions, oft ‘local’) tend to label as ‘out’ and/or belittle nearly anything that is non-consumerist and therefore, freeing and enabling of individuality. Enter, individual/activist at large, Reverend Billy, New York based actor, performance artist, entertainer. Call him what you will, his mission is clear – to enable his audiences to awaken from their consumerist, TV enhanced stupors and take positive, collective action to save their freedoms and in the case of his latest theme – the planet itself. Though the presentation of the show is at times, riotously funny for its’ seeming overstatement, this is just a device to enable us to shake the sleep from our eyes, as the loss of our civil liberties, i.e. breakdown of communities, privatization of NHS and other essential services especially those vital to the health and well being of the elderly and other vulnerable people, loss of one’s’ right to affordable education and legal representation, and the shamelessly reckless destruction of our very environment due to corporate greed and intergovernmental collusion is no joke and needs to be collectively acted against as matter of extreme urgency. We all know this. But Billy has landed on these shores during the calm before the final, picking up where the Iron Lady left off clampdowns of the Con-Dems to remind us. Despite any mayhem, Billy’s meaning is clear - act now or give up your right to be who you are in an allegedly, democratic society, forevermore.
These chilling truths infuse the show’s songs with the strength only mutual awareness can give, making them anthems for our time. Think of this topical revivalist show as Hair, with spikes aimed at lampooning all that which is held up in society as right and good that is in reality, just the opposite.
With the choir dancing up the aisle in a venue where many esteemed non-conformists, among them George Orwell, Emily Pankhurst, Bertram Russell and Paul Robson to name but a few have spoken, with cult (but nonetheless legendary) Reverend Billy in his trademark white suit shakin’ all over, laying on hands here and there among the crowd as he followed, we sensed that we were in for an unforgettable performance. Walls of any kind, ‘fourth’ or otherwise were about to be pulled down.
When Billy first stepped onto the three tiered platform leading up to the stage, he spoke in a shocked, confessionary tone of a ‘stopover’ – in ‘Ipswich’ (big audience laughs) where, after wandering into a Tesco Express, he felt attracted to a ‘tear shaped product’ with an alluring ‘soap star’ on the front who seemed to be looking at him, in, of all places, the ‘hair-care’ aisle, even more comic, given his Elvis like mane. He then proceeded to throw himself onto the floor in the centre aisle in a fit of consumerist possession with the choir calling out from the stage, Billy crying out to surrounding audience members for help and choir and choirmaster Benn coming to his aide with grave expressions, crying out, ‘I’m comin’ Reverend’ and the like as they attempted to literally, lift him from his demonic depths. This riotous episode set the tone and raised the bar right through the rafters in what was to be a cathartic, raucous, back-handed celebration of choice, our ability to awaken to reality and the endless possibilities for positive change through the use of good old people power.
That said, Billy is nothing if not a realist, for in a moment of fervent, genuinely inspired speech, he cited how during the mass occupation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, a ‘city’ had been established, with people trading skills and sharing provisions, even setting up ‘streets’. In order to reclaim our power as people, he said, we’ll have to take risks, and some people might suffer or even die, though things would be better for everyone afterwards. It might seem like a cliché but his face seemed enraptured as he spoke, reminding us that a cause believed in becomes a mission. His overriding belief, one we’d do well to share is ‘the earth is in us’ and we and it are as one.
The music from this show is endlessly uplifting, from the opening number ‘Earthalujah Anthem’ to Billy’s concluding, rousing ‘Sermon’, as it’s full of empowering ideas and phrases fueled by artists who walk the walk in regard to every word of what they’re expressing to us.
Although all of the show’s songs are feisty, soulful and downright gusty, as performed by various fiery singers, most female, with voices ranging from gospel inflected to raw, stripped back blues and soul with enough power between them to light up London, there were definitive vocal highlights. Tops among them was, without doubt, the knock down, kick ass soul of the young black, Texan woman who belted out ‘Neighborhood’, as in ‘give it back’ in an amazingly heart wrenching lament, nearly falling to her knees as the audience roared their appreciation.
Onstage and in the aisles movement from the very involved and involving cast as constant but fluctuating as a relentless tidal surge encouraged going with the flow from the audience. With titles like, ‘What a Difference Apocalypse Makes’ and ‘Earth is Speaking’ with its question, ‘Do you speak Earth?’, there’s a thoughtfully balanced line between satirical humour and truth expressed within the songs’ lyrics. ‘Sandwich’ is a clever little ditty in which its’ very excellent singer apologized for the endless string of US fast food joints in London, when all you really need to do is go home and make yourself a sarnie – simple. We’re slaves to convenience, even at the expense of health. ‘Some of us were raised on irony,’ as Billy noted at Tate Modern the next day….
Another highlight for children and adults alike involved Billy and the Choir encouraging the audience to make animal sounds, as our inner beasts – birds, monkeys, you name it could be heard around us. I confess to emitting my favourite bird call, with as much gusto as I could muster. When Billy asked for nature stories from the audience, a woman about halfway back said into the mike he handed her, ‘I saw a crawfish and an eel together in the River Leigh, ‘ to which Billy shouted ‘Crawfishalujah!’ To be at one of Billy’s shows is to become a part of it.
This participatory notion was furthered by choir members calling out things like ‘Amen’ and ‘That’s right Reverend’ from strategic spots in the audience between songs and sermons, as one would at a revival meeting. This cast participation encouraged the audience to do likewise.
At one point, Billy invited an Anti-Arms group onto the stage as though he was asking them to testify too, which their leader ably did, getting into the revivalist spirit of things. The group has been practicing peaceful protests against arms for some time and their leader alluded to one in which ‘two tanks’ had played a pivotal role. One of the largely unknown truths revealed was that Excel Centre in London’s East End hosts a bi-yearly arms fair, naturally, the object of protest which this revelation will hopefully expand.
Another of the centerpieces of this performance was Billy’s witness of the ‘5 Grannies of Liverpool’ who are effectively, squatting in their own long-term homes in order to prevent them, and, their entire community, from being destroyed in the name of progress aka corporate greed – a metaphor for countless such break downs round the globe. Billy bore witness to several truths in the course of his testifying, among them the inherent wisdom of age, with choir acting as spirited backup chorus, the call and response of which was so infectious I found myself joining several audience members already being similarly vocal, in response to points being raised, among them, ‘You learn more from five grannies in Granby Street than you do from Google’ – a truth which inspired much laughter of recognition.
The show ended on a high, with the audience at the heart of the revival meeting, feeling, hopefully, revived, as choir members and the good Reverend himself headed into the aisles to hug as many people as humanly possible, before leading us out of the building into nearby Red Lion Square, where Billy spoke to everyone in turn, shaking hands, posing for photo after photo.
It was there that we met a Liverpool based actor who’d seen Billy and his Choir there, and had afterward, been inspired to join the aforementioned grannies in their fight, along with others who’re now doing the same. The fact that some people had brought their young children to Conway Hall that night had also been encouraging. The sooner we get this stuff under our belts the better, for as Billy noted, ‘Consumerism heightens militarism,’ the ole ‘throw the serfs some wine’ adage. All of which, points out the true purpose of and need for Billy’s brave, politically charged activities, be they street theatre or staged shows – to raise awareness and inspire peaceful, collective action for positive change.
The fact that Billy has come here at an unprecedented moment in time has not gone amiss, as he sighed after the whereabouts of one Rupert Murdoch in the course of one of his cathartic rants…In fact, they’ll be a protest, activated by the Coalition of Resistance this very day - Thurs. July 19th from 6pm to 7pm, in front of (or as near as possible to) Parliament, against the shameless greed and corruption as the unholy trinity of Murdoch and son, and their infamous Ms. Brooks attempt to whitewash their sins once again, this time before a number of MPs.
See you there…or as Billy would say – Protestalujah!
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