by Rob Silverman Ascher
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Feeling the Future at Christian End-Time Performances. Jill Stevenson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2022; Pp. 243.
The overlap of performance and evangelical Christianity is typically limited to analyzing preachers and passion plays. In Feeling the Future at Christian End-Time Performances, Jill Stevenson extends the language of performance studies to immersive evangelical experiences she refers to as “End-Time Performances.” These performances, including Hell House, Judgement House, and Tribulation Trail, are semi-professional performances that explicitly preach to audiences that a sincere belief in Christ is the way to avoid the apocalypse in the End of Days. The bulk of Stevenson’s analysis, over five chapters and a coda, is built around the question of how a “dramaturgy of threat [produces] the future End of Time” through interactive performance and staging.
The first chapter, “The Landscape of the End: Time, Affect, Threat, Absence” functions as both a sourcebook and a roadmap, effectively introducing the lenses through which Stevenson wants her audience to analyze the productions used as evidence. Stevenson provides a crash course of sorts on theological concepts such as pre- and post-millennial dispensationalism, performance studies concepts like affect theory, and the history of non-denominational American evangelical Christianity. This section is sufficiently informative on its own, enmeshing figures like Cyrus Scofield, author of the Scofield Reference Bible, and Jill Dolan, whose seminal writing on utopian performatives informs Stevenson’s analysis of the role of time in End-Time Performances. While Dolan’s utopian performative is a sunny and aspirational future proposed by the 1960s counterculture, Stevenson notes that the ‘utopian performative’ and evangelical Hell House alike ask their audiences to consider, in Dolan’s language, “that beyond this ‘now’ of material oppression…. Lives a future that might be different.” The biggest difference argues Stevenson that an Evangelical future must take place in the afterlife.
The core of Stevenson’s book uses three different End-Time Performances and the stand-alone Ark Encounter Museum as case studies. Nearly all of these are performed on or near church property annually. Hell House is the exception, as it has been licensed by churches and theatre groups across the country, including the New York City-based Les Freres Corbusier. That company performed a “sincere staging” of Hell House, following kits published by Pastor Keenan Roberts, leader of New Destiny Christian Center in Colorado. This homegrown ethos is central to the ethnographic work that Stevenson puts at the core of Feeling the Future. Stevenson, who writes in detail about her experiences as an attendee at the End-Time Performances, takes care to note the age ranges and racial makeup of audiences at these performances.
Stevenson notes that the majority of End-Time performance attendees are white and between the ages of 18 and 36, with the exception of Tribulation Trail. This piece had an age-diverse audience comprised primarily of Black and Latine attendees, which fits some creative choices. Notably, in Tribulation Trail, a Black performer portrayed Jesus in the portion depicting the slaying of Satan, aligning with the largely-Black congregational makeup at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church, the producers of Tribulation Trail. Many of the performances with predominantly white audiences take on a much more political bent. Attendees are rushed through an apocalyptic landscape besieged by a One World Government with technocratic ideals, installing the Mark of the Beast in the form of microchips. Stevenson keenly observes the political contexts through which she and her fellow audience members receive the dramaturgical information woven into these apocalyptic landscapes.
After all, these End-Time Performances are proselytizing tools. Nearly all of them conclude with a moment of prayer and an invitation to their audience to accept Christ as their savior. Some of these calls to action are profoundly intimate and offer their audience members opportunities to speak with a member of the ministry, while others merely warn the audience to keep Christ in their hearts in the face of the coming Rapture. Stevenson slyly juxtaposes the political context and ticket price of a given show with how intense these proselytizing moments are, quietly casting doubt on the theological integrity of various ministries.
Stevenson’s central argument on the dramaturgy of threat and futurity asks readers to hold the content of these performances alongside the emphasis on futurity inherent in evangelical Christianity. A message of Christ’s power as a savior immediately follows vivid images of lakes of fire, piles of clothes, and scenes of abortion and grotesque violence. If, she supposes, the audience is given the opportunity to accept Christ as their savior after being inundated with the End of Days and sins of man, they will take scripture less out of sincere belief and more out of panic regarding “impending futurity.” A focus on the inevitability of Christ’s return or some sort of holy deliverance has roots in medieval British theatre, to which Stevenson devotes a section of her first chapter. Statement of belief is not always sufficient, however, as several of the End-Time Performances feature purportedly Christian characters who were not raptured due to a lack of sincerity.
The book concludes with a two-part Coda, written in June 2020 and January 2021, analyzing, in brief, the beginning of the COVID epidemic, the 2020 election, and the January 6th insurrection through the lenses Stevenson has set up for these contemporary End-Time Performances. Shockingly, much of the imagery baked into the apocalypse narratives she has been analyzing has since become central to life in 2021, as COVID is treated as a hoax and evangelicals proudly storm the Capitol.
Feeling the Future at Christian End-Time Performances is a compelling text for casual readers, not only scholars, as Stevenson’s writing is clear, concise and vivid in description. Yet, it is also valuable as an educational text, shedding light on the dramaturgical integrity of a mode of performance ignored by the theatrical establishment. Stevenson makes a compelling case for End-Time Performance as a uniquely American form of performance, with roots in the York Mystery Plays, aesthetic references to zombie movies, and a clear sense of theological didacticism. Feeling the Future at Christian End-Time Performances applies theological and performance-theoretical frameworks to an underexplored form, leaving its audience of readers with a dense and rewarding dramaturgical text. This work is important for an array of fields, including Theater and Performance Studies, American Studies and Religious Studies.
Rob Silverman Ascher
University of Iowa