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Jayme McGhan, Playwright

January 12, 2010


In November, I was asked to start an artists blog which would spotlight eleven Vineyard arts leaders for each month of the first year. We chose a playwright named Jayme McGhan I had not yet met for January. Before meeting him, I was given little information—Jayme is a successful, edgy playwright who teaches at Concordia University and has been going to our church since the end of the summer. I am an easily intimidated person, but I assured myself this guy couldn’t be too impressive if he goes to my church—I unfortunately subscribe to Woody Allen’s notion that I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member.

After Googling “Jayme McGhan” later that evening, I realized I was wrong. Jayme is not just a successful artist, he is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been performed all over the country and internationally. And he is only 28-years-old. I began to get nervous. My nerves were heightened when Jayme sent me three of his plays to read, and I found them to be amazing and nothing I would have expected—they were neither Christianly cheesy nor pointlessly esoteric. They are good stories that made me think, mostly about spiritual dilemmas, without doing so overtly.

My stress level continued to crescendo in the days leading up to the looming interview. Would he find my questions dumb? Would he be appalled by my lack of theater knowledge? Would he telepathically guess that I had to confirm the spelling of “playwright” before writing this blog? Most importantly, would I be a horrible interviewer since I have never interviewed anyone besides my grandmother?

The truth is that Jayme is a series of contradictions. While I fumbled around, late for the long-awaited interview, he kindly explained that the internet on his phone kept him company. He was smiley and nice. He looked athletic with a nice haircut and was perhaps preppier-looking than my preppy husband—not the brooding writer I had anticipated after reading his dark plays. If I had not already read his plays, I would have assumed he could not have been that good of a writer (which says more about me than anything). He was just too clean cut looking. But then he threw me off again when he began to express views that made him seem politically liberal, again contrary to the box I had placed him based on appearances.

Jayme grew up in Minneapolis in a nondenominational Christian family who strongly supported Union rights and fair wages. This upbringing is apparent in Jayme’s writing. One of his most well-known and widely produced plays, The Fishermen, deals with the story of two brothers who lose their airline jobs just before they are to retire with their pensions. The brothers then put a bomb on a plane carrying executives of the airline they used to work for, taking seventeen lives.  The country is then divided by people who understand what caused the brothers to react so violently and those who view them as debased terrorists. Jayme admits that the play is disturbing but declares that it is “only a matter of time before [something like this] happens.” Interestingly, the play would be performed even more widely if it were not for its abrasive attack on big corporations, some of the very corporations who sponsor the playhouses where The Fishermen would be performed.

In another play, Mother Bear, Jayme faces his own bent towards pacifism by having a pacifist named “Freely” forced into a situation where he must decide whether or not to kill a murdering, violent man who has just killed his friend and is about to kill two others, or to let him go free, as his conscious would dictate. But Freely, who is given freedom to choose, is only one of a number of characters living life by the dictates of their various, unique moral codes in the play.  For example, after hating “Mother,” the leader of a gang of truckers who uses scripture to justify his many murders and who will put his loaded gun to your head at a moment’s notice for most of the play, you end up sympathizing with him in the end.

Jayme’s plays do deal with spiritual elements, but not through the clichéd metaphors we are accustomed to seeing among many artists in the typical Christian sector. This is no This Present Darkness. In the absurdist play, The Methuselah Tree—which one critic attacked by saying it would “make Samuel Beckett run see a Neil Simon play” and then Jayme interpreted as a compliment—there is a mysterious man who lives in the house where the story takes place. You only learn about the apparition, or “the man in the attic,” indirectly: you find out that he never eats, that he watches the family’s animal-murdering son through a hole in his ceiling, telling him to “Receive the light”, and that he eventually takes off for Brazil when his presence is no longer appreciated. The main character, a scientist-father, spends the entire play working on the construction of a globe-like cylinder that is meant to be ingested (or with the larger versions, to ingest you) and cause you to disappear. Jayme reveals that the play is meant to portray the “concept of mankind trying to save themselves. It’s a scary time in history. Animals want to die.” But the play provides no clear explanations or answers for the madness. If anything, it only raises questions–about life, souls and the afterlife.

Surprising, then, is how overt Jayme is about faith when you talk to him face-to-face. He explains that his beliefs developed in line with his parents’, but that he has “narrowed down [his] spirituality.” The bottom line of Christianity for him is, “love, love, love.” He believes it is “astounding to see what happens when we get out of our shell and let God do whatever.” At “uber-liberal” Stage Left Theater in Chicago, Jayme is known to his peers as the “socialist Christian.” Though he would not label himself a socialist, he is very upfront with his colleagues and peers about what he believes. He explains that Christianity has become a series of rules meant to keep the spirit down, but that he wants to share the power and beauty of Jesus’ love. In Jayme’s words, “That’s for everyone, [it] doesn’t matter who you are.” He admits that he is an “anomaly in contemporary media” and that “it’s impossible to find a Christian in theater.” Peers often ask if he really believes “in ‘that,’” meaning Jesus, but he doesn’t let the spiritual differences keep him from being open. “What are they gonna do? Not… do my play?”

But don’t let the straightforward, loving Christianity fool you. He has a bone to pick, and it’s with corporations, and especially corporations with Christian connections and wealthy Christians who try to make money off corporatizing their faith.  He expressed this perspective in a play he wrote as an undergraduate at Southwest Minnesota State University. The play won awards through the American College Theater Festival and had five sold out shows, largely thanks to its “super-provocative” advertising poster. The poster featured Jesus Christ, dead on a cross on a hill surrounded by barbed wire, with his body covered in corporate sponsorship slogans, wearing a Nike cap, and a Britney Spears shirt. Jayme said, “If anything, I feel like my social justice is going to break the spine of corporate American Christianity,” which he feels is hypocritical, misrepresenting Christ to many who might otherwise desire to meet Him. Yes, Jayme believes it’s “time to rip the heart out of that beast.”

We need more people in the church like this—people who are fearless and unapologetic about both their art and their faith. People who are urging others to consider the value of their value systems and their souls and people who are simultaneously challenging non-Christians to consider Christ and Christians to consider how they might be representing Christ. Jayme explained that he wants “to plant the seed of the Kingdom and not have people know it’s being planted.”

What is amazing about Jayme and many artists, is his ability to create stories of multi-layered, fascinating, connected complexity out of nothing. In Mother Bear, the first play of Jayme’s I read, nothing was as it seemed, but everything made sense in the end. Where in the human mind does a story like that come from? It is supernatural. When I asked him where his plots do come from, Jayme explained that they often start with a basic idea that grows into a character. One of his plays grew from the image of a single blade of grass, growing between train tracks that was bent and crushed when a train came by, but appeared again after every train passed, time after time. The blade of grass metamorphosed into a humble character who withstood many challenges to become a hero in a play called Willy Beau Dilly. Thus, a single fleeting thought becomes flesh and blood on a stage.

Forced to pinpoint a theme in the tiny percentage of Jayme’s work I have read, I would have to say that they all deal with the soul, and more specifically, the choices of significant meaning and consequence we must make day after day. Our choices define us, even as they conflict or align with our individual concepts of right and wrong. From Freely in Mother Bear choosing to ignore his own value system to protect human lives and seek vengeance for others, to the mother, Murielle, in The Methuselah Tree allowing her son to swallow a mysterious sphere that ultimately kills him, the characters in every play are faced with choices that have repercussions of life and death. Is this true of every human? Jayme wants people to “walk out different than they walked in”, even if that means they are little angry or a little disillusioned. Jayme is currently reworking the provocative play he wrote as an undergrad—the one that was advertised with Jesus plastered in marketing slogans—into a number of mini-monologues that will be presented at different churches. According to the writer himself, this accusatory play “will piss a lot of people off.” Sounds wonderful.

Jayme’s website (http://www.jaymemcghan.com/) is currently under construction, but check it again in the future to find out more about him. In the meantime, read descriptions of some of his plays here: http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsM/mcghan-jayme.html.

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