These days, a musical about a community where all members gather in the nude to sing and dance wouldn’t seem all that strange. After all, “Hair” has been around for decades.
But if you heard that this community was devoutly Christian, took vows of celibacy, and actually flourished nearly 200 years ago, you might raise an eyebrow. Perhaps you’d raise the other one if you heard that both the creators of this show were Jews.
Such is the case with “Angel Reapers,” which opened at The Joyce this week and was created by former MacArthur “genius” grant-winning choreographer Martha Clarke and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Alfred Uhry — both Jews.
To be fair, “Angel Reapers” is not actually a musical, but an artier dance-theater performance — or a “tone poem,” as Clarke calls it. But it does tell the story of a devoutly Christian, celibate sect whose members danced in the nude together: the Shaker movement, an offshoot of the Quaker movement that flourished in America in the early 19th century.
“Alfred and I grew up similarly,” said Clarke, 67, noting that both were born to secular German Jewish families with deep roots in America. “Maybe that’s why we collaborated so well together.”
Commenting on the relation between Shakers and Jews, Uhry said that they were virtual opposites. “With Judaism,” he said, “common sense is the bedrock of the whole thing, but not for the Shakers. Mother Ann Lee” — the movement’s early leader — “believed she was the sister of Jesus Christ, and her followers believed her, too.
“This was strictly foreign territory for me and Martha,” he added.
But the Shakers’ strangeness was central to their allure, said Uhry. The idea for a show based on the community began many years ago, when Uhry rented a home with his family in upstate New York. The home was in Hanover, near the original Shaker settlement, founded by Ann Lee.
A married convert to Shakerism, Lee emigrated from England in 1774, and was instrumental in shaping Shaker theology, which was radical and required strict adherence. Shakers all took strict vows of celibacy, and relied exclusively on new converts — many of them runaway slaves, orphans, battered wives and homeless men, women and families. They believed they could communicate with long dead figures, like Christopher Columbus and Eskimo ancestors, and often spoke in tongues.
“They’d even pass around spiritual wine, which wasn’t wine at all,” said Uhry, noting that alcohol was forbidden; rather, they’d simply imagine they were drinking wine from empty glasses. “They’d get wasted on the stuff.”
But Uhry and Clarke were not out to mock the Shakers. Both creators noted that their dance-theater piece alludes approvingly to the purity of Shaker faith. And they complicate the modern viewer’s penchant to sneer by noting some of the sect’s radically progressive views. Shakers believed in racial equality, for instance, at a time when slavery was rampant, and they practiced gender equality, too.
Still, what fascinated Uhry and Clarke most was their sexual habits. Or as Clarke put it, regarding the requisite vows of celibacy, “what it took out of people to deny their natural desires.”
“On one level,” she added, “it’s a piece about sexual repression.” By dancing together in the nude and not becoming aroused, she explained, Shakers believed they had conquered their sexual desires.
The performance conveys all that (including a nude scene) through dance, a cappella performances of original Shaker hymns that have become famous — Aaron Copland sampled the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” in his symphony “Appalachian Spring” — as well as spoken confessions.
The 11 performers come mostly from dance backgrounds, ranging from the Paul Taylor Dance Company to a Bill T. Jones troupe. And they tackle all these demands — singing, dancing, speaking — in full period costumes: white headscarves and austere full-length dresses for the women; black suits and matching broad-brimmed hats for the men.
Peter Musante, a performer, noted how Clarke described early Shaker rituals she had; they were full of clapping, stopping and singing. “There was an emphasis on collective rhythm,” he noted, and “Martha used that as the starting point to develop her own original [dance] vocabulary that looks somehow authentic.”
It was Uhry who was first inspired to make a Shaker-themed piece, however, and six years ago he approached Clarke about collaborating. They were at a Thanksgiving dinner, and had met only once before, but it did not take Clarke long to warm to the idea.
“I was very flattered,” Clarke said, “I said, ‘I’d love to do a piece with Alfred Uhry.’”
Uhry, of course, was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Driving Miss Daisy.” The play was about a black chauffeur and his Southern Jewish patron, Miss Daisy Werthan, who was based on Uhry’s own grandmother. It was a hit, and when it was transferred to the screen in 1989, Uhry won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Last year, the play was revived on Broadway, and it is now is now playing, in a Broadway transfer, on London’s West End.
Judaism was only lightly referenced in “Daisy,” the result, Uhry says, of his poor Jewish education. “I always regretted that I never felt a strong tie to Judaism as a religion,” he said. “In a way, I regret that I didn’t even raise my kids with any connection to Judaism.”
Uhry, who turns 75 this week, has become more educated about Judaism in the past several years, however. Oddly enough, that is on account of his wife, an Episcopalian, who encouraged him to learn more about his faith. Now Uhry attends Passover seders regularly, for instance, whereas he never did growing up; back then, he even celebrated Easter, minus the mention of Jesus.
He is still not religious, but Jewish culture and history frequently find a place in his work. There was “Daisy,” but that was part of his “Atlanta Trilogy” which included “Last Night of Ballyhoo” (1997), about the intra-Jewish conflicts between Sephardic and German Jews.
“Ballyhoo” was followed by his Tony-winning musical “Parade,” in 1998, about the Leo Frank case. The 1915 lynching of Frank, a Jewish pencil factory manager accused of murdering a poor white Christian girl, was also somewhat personal. Uhry’s great-uncle owned the factory where Frank worked, and Uhry’s grandmother, a close friend of Frank’s wife, took meals to Frank while he was in prison.
Last year, Uhry completed his latest Jewish play. Titled “Divine Intervention,” it is based on the 19th-century figure Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish-born Christian convert who was kidnapped by priests. Mortara had been born Jewish in Bologna but nearly died at birth. His nurse, a devout Catholic, believed he’d go to hell if he died a Jew, so she baptized him.
Yet Mortara survived. And when he was a few years older church officials kidnapped him, raised him among Christians, and he eventually became a high-ranking priest — moreover, one with a penchant for converting Jews.
Uhry is looking for producers of his dramatized version, and was asked if he consciously sought out Jewish subjects for his work. He demurred. “I don’t set out to do that” — write Jewish-themed plays, he said. “It just tends to happen a lot. … Culturally, I’m enormously proud to be Jewish. But religiously, I’m ignorant; I don’t know anything.”
Clarke sounds a similar note. She was raised in a secular German Jewish family, albeit in the Northeast. Yet she has shown much less of an interest in Jewish religion or culture, even if she easily acknowledges her Jewish background. “Honestly, I wasn’t raised much of anything,” she said simply.
What she is passionate about is her work, her most famous piece being “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” It had its premiere in New York in 1984, to rave reviews, and has been revived several times since. Like “Angel Reapers,” it dealt with sin and bodily desire — based, however, on a 16th-century Hieronymous Bosch painting.
Working with Uhry on “Angel Reapers” was a chance to bring her intellectual interests in sin and desire in a different direction. It is as much a dance piece as it is a work of theater. And it is also a deeper exploration of religious belief than either creator has ever envisioned.
“The strangeness of it and the purity of it is very beautiful,” Clarke said of Shaker belief. But then she made her personal views clear: “I don’t believe what the Shakers believed. … Celibacy doesn’t work in real life.” Indeed, she noted, celibacy essentially killed off the Shaker community. Today, only two or three of the faithful remain.
“Angel Reapers” shows at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., through Dec. 11. Tickets are $10 to $59. Call (212)-691-9740 for more information.