For Isabella O’Keeffe, Fresno State’s ‘Man of God’ offers a chance to make history
With a title like “Man of God,” you might expect the first few minutes of this topsy-turvy theatrical outing to introduce an intense discussion about the nature of evil, say, or perhaps a debate about priests marrying.
Or, at the very least, an earnest prayer.
But this assertively funny (and dark, and, ultimately, quite unsettling), feminist-thriller comedy by Anna Ouyand Moench, which opens Friday, Oct. 1, and runs through Saturday, Oct. 9, at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre, isn’t that kind of play. Consider some of the early topics introduced: Weird German sex fiends. Voyeurism. Taking the Lord’s name in vain. The F word, many times and creatively conjugated.
Christianity plays a role, but it isn’t a theological one. Jesus makes an appearance, but she doesn’t talk in Bible verses. In “Man of God,” religion is a stand-in for essentially any male-dominated organization in which some men take advantage of centuries-old, patriarchal power structures to prey — not pray — upon women.
Fresno State student Isabella O’Keeffe plays Samantha, a Southern California teenager on a church-sponsored mission trip to Thailand. One of the choicest things about the play — which I chose to see in a final dress rehearsal, not opening night, so I’m not writing a traditional review — is the complexity of the characters. Samantha is a bit spoiled, and she’s also naive. She is a gung-ho Christian, but only so far because it’s been easy and expected. The other girls she’s sharing a hotel room with are at other points on the religious spectrum, from full-throttle believer to saucy heretic. Samantha’s journey to find her place on that spectrum — after a disturbing incident that sends the Thailand trip into a tailspin — is one of the most interesting in the show.
O’Keeffe is passionate about the play, and for good reason. I had a chance to talk with her before I saw the show. Here’s our interview.
Q: First off, the play is a really big deal for Fresno State’s theater department. Can you tell us why?
A: “Man of God” will be the first in person play since the pandemic started. It is also the first play at Fresno State with an all-Asian cast. This is particularly important considering the rise in Asian hate crimes since the start of the pandemic and the #StopAsianHate movement. Because of these reasons and the content of the play, we are able to portray a powerful message of solidarity.
Q: In a phone call earlier today to prep for this email interview, you said something that has stuck with me all afternoon. “Man of God” is the first time you’ve worked on a production in which everyone is either a woman or a person of color. Most of the time, you told me, actors of color end up competing with each other for limited roles. What has it been like to find yourself in a creative space like this one?
A: It has been incredibly liberating and makes me hopeful for the future. Seeing people that look like me and have similar experiences makes me feel valid in the space I’m in. I don’t feel like I have to speak on behalf of my experience as a woman of color, and can instead simply focus on the role I am portraying; which, unfortunately is not always the case.
The best part about it is that I am able to work with people I have not before. As people of color, roles written for us (that are not stereotypical) have been few and far between. But I think the future of the theater is changing and instead of vying for limited roles with other people of color, we are beginning to collectively tell our own authentic stories. That is exactly what we are doing in “Man of God.”
Q. The play is about a group of female high school students who just happen to be Korean Americans. Why is the fact that it doesn’t get preachy about race important to you?
A: We have all experienced countless grief since the beginning of the pandemic, and as an Asian woman I have experienced racism, too. I do not feel like we need to key in on our race in order to tell our story. It is simply a part of us, but we are more than our skin color. This play addresses this intersectionality without preaching it, in the hopes that this can become a collaborative conversation for not only Asians, but women, men, and religious individuals.
Q: Those students travel together to Thailand on a mission trip because they’re part of a church group. Give us a preview of what happens.
A: Four Korean American teenage girls attend a mission trip in Thailand with their Pastor.
Shortly after arriving, they discover a camera hidden in their bathroom. They take turns guessing who could’ve planted it there, ultimately deciding they are definitely going to do something about it. In this dark comedy we explore themes of betrayal, faith, privacy, feminism, and identity.
Q: Tell us about the playwright and the publisher. Has this play been performed often?
A: The playwright is Anna Ouyand Moench, who is an Asian American woman. This play had its world premiere at East West Players in 2019. Since then it has been performed at The Geffen Playhouse and InterAct Theatre Company.
Q: You’re working with Thomas-Whit Ellis, theater professor at Fresno State, who’s directing the show. How has he helped shape the show and your character?
A: This is a really fun show to work on; it feels quite natural at times. The dialogue reminds me of when I was a teenager and I still find myself often talking like these characters. He has helped make Samantha a more complex character. Her faith becomes an internal struggle after the discovery of the camera. All the characters have really come to life and are more dynamic than I imagined them to be while reading it.
Q: You come from a mixed racial background. Tell us about that and how it adds to your appreciation for diversity.
A: Yes, I am 25% Korean, 50% Mexican, and 25% Irish. Being a mixed woman of color has been a journey within itself. Racist comments made me ashamed of it, but theatre has helped me embrace it in its entirety. Growing up I did not see people in the arts that looked like me. It is really hard to believe that I have a future in this industry, when I do not see others that look like me in the positions I aspire to be in one day. However, I have noticed an increase in representation within the arts, but we still have a long way to go.
It is true that not everyone in this cast is Korean, but everyone in this cast is Asian. The same can be said for “In the Heights,” which also received criticism on this topic. However, many Eurocentric plays do the exact same thing, yet they do not get scrutinized for having a Swedish person portray an Irish character. The fact that productions centered on people of color receive criticism for casting, yet Eurocentric shows don’t, show that we still have a long way to go for diversity and representation. Don’t overlook the fact that this is a historic moment for Fresno State, yes we still have a long way to go in American Theatre, but this is a huge win and we deserve to celebrate it and to be celebrated.
Q: In 2019, you attended the National Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., as the Arts Advocacy Fellow for Region 8. That experience has had a really big impact on you. Explain what arts-leadership training is and how it helps prepare young people for making an impact in the theater world.
A: Yeah, that experience quite literally changed my life. It very much influenced my decision to attend Fresno State, too. Arts leadership essentially trains young leaders to become future administrators of American Theatre. The ASPIRE Arts Leadership program has mentors from Yale, Brown, and League of Resident Theatres. It has a specific focus on women of all ethnicities and men of color. It creates emerging arts leaders who will ultimately become
administrators at resident theatres. Administrators who will select seasons and cast, making it more diverse and equitable at all levels.
Q: Do you see yourself getting into theater administration?
A: It is definitely one of my options. I know the work is extremely important and bigger than myself. There is definitely a lot of pressure, but the work is worth it. In order to provide more diverse and equitable opportunities I know that involves administration and I’d love to be a part of that process.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: I think this show is not only historic for Fresno State, but the Asian community within the valley as a whole. It means a lot to me and I hope that people enjoy the show and have conversations about the themes discussed. This has been an incredible opportunity and has opened the door for more representative projects in the future.