Thanks to my husband, we recently reconnected with a friend from college, a fellow drama major. He was performing in a summer season of musicals at Tuacahn, a theatrical venue outside St. George, Utah. Three plays ran in repertory, and we got to see our friend portray Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” and Archdeacon Dom Frollo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He was entirely brilliant, a talented actor and singer, and we felt proud of him for following his dreams and succeeding these many years in the theater. We caught up on our divergent lives and talked about old times over drinks one night and brunch the next day. Although I complained about the trip before it happened — I am not crazy about musicals, and it was a long drive on a short weekend — I am so grateful to my husband for dragging me to Utah.
Besides spending time with a good friend, there’s another reason for gratitude: a particular song. The production of “Hunchback” featured the songs from the 1996 Disney movie, while adding back in some of the darker aspects of Victor Hugo’s novel. One song, sung by the gypsy Esmerelda as she seeks sanctuary in Notre Dame, has stayed with me. It’s called “God Help the Outcasts.” Its lyrics resonated so truly with our current electoral climate of xenophobic fear that it pulled my attention momentarily out of the scene onstage. In the play, Esmerelda is alone in the cathedral. She is new to prayer. She feels awkward and wonders if she, an outcast woman on the fringe of Parisian society, is unworthy to address God in God’s house. But then she asks the figure on the crucifix, “Were you once an outcast, too?”
As the actress playing Esmerelda sang soulfully of the plight of her outcast people, I thought of Syria. Of the many people displaced there. Of the photo gone viral of the little boy, in shock, spattered with blood and dirt, sitting in the back of an ambulance. Then I thought of our national resistance to admitting, let alone welcoming, those Syrian refugees. “God help the outcasts,” sang Esmerelda, in a pretend cathedral in a nineteenth century context, “or nobody will.”
Nobody? Is there nobody but God to help? It must seem that way to the desperate thousands who have no home and nowhere to go. If we say we are Christians, however, we are called by that faith to give shelter, to feed, to clothe, and to care for our fellow humans in their need. The outcasts of the world are specifically the people whom Jesus tells us to love and serve. Instead, we fear them. We disparage them. They dress wrong, look wrong, follow the wrong religion, practice foreign customs, threaten our comfortable existence. We cast them out. We keep them out. We speak of building walls around ourselves.
These thoughts spilled into my heart as the drama surged forward. I thought of the history of outcasts: Weren’t all Americans outcasts at one time? I thought of how we overlook those among us who may still feel like outcasts: the homeless, the elderly, the undocumented, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the “losers.” I thought of the Holy Family, and the coming Christmas season when we people of faith will venerate and re-enact the story of an outcast girl giving birth in a stable to an outcast child, a child destined to die by crucifixion as an outcast criminal. We Christians worship an outcast, but how often do we ignore his teaching to stand with the other outcasts?
Onstage, Esmerelda’s song ended with the words, “I thought we all were / Children of God.”
Do we think that? Do we embody that, as Jesus did?
The show ended tragically, and a standing ovation for our friend and his fellow actors in the company ensued. This performance of “Hunchback” had entertained us, challenged us, and shown us the life we hold in common as children of God. I was reminded of the magic of live theater, of the power of words and music, of costumes and sets, of actors and their passion, to touch us so deeply and viscerally.
Thanks, old friend.