THEATER | Kevin Kling’s “Joice Rejoice”: “I would never respect a God I could understand”


One summer day I was standing at a south Minneapolis intersection waiting for the walk sign when a truck came to a stop at the red light. Hanging out his open window the driver yelled to me, ”Are you enjoying life?”

“Yes,” I said, figuring it was the right answer.

“Well, good, because you’re supposed to!”

Really? “Supposed to?” Is it even possible, given life’s inevitable storms and the state of our world? Try this on: you were born with a birth defect, a partially-formed arm, lost the use of your good arm in an accident, and now you’re writing a play about joy. Enter Kevin Kling, adept and renowned storyteller, who lives this story. How does he do it? I want to know. In Joice Rejoice he tells us, obliquely. It’s Kling’s fifth summertime show at artist-driven Open Eye Theatre, where he gets to do what he wants. In this case, that’s celebrate, praise, and revisit joy.

Who better to understand joy than Lazarus, the New Testament figure raised by Jesus from the dead after four days? As Lazarus, Kling embarks on an exploration of life and the anatomy of joy.

The show opens as folks gather in the spruced-up garage for a party. “WELCOME BACK LAZARUS,” reads the banner. Food is set out, musicians ready, as friends and family eagerly await his arrival. Then an ebullient Lazarus saunters in: “Hey, I’m back!” Wild applause. He steps to the church pulpit and holds forth with a sermonic stream of consciousness—stories, reflections, and quips, interspersed with monologues, puppetry, music—as he considers this most stunning event, returning from the dead.

Lazarus/Kling recalls childhood, when he developed mono—monotheism, that is—suggesting the divine is closer to us as children, becoming less accessible as “administrations” erode the primal connection.

Cruising with Lazarus, we’re engaged and entertained, for Kling creates an amazing, complex tapestry of biblical and personal material woven together with characteristic wit, wisdom, down-home humor, warmth and authenticity, depth and seriousness. And we wonder—where’s this going?

If you’re looking for a linear thread, forget it. The narrative arc is often elusive, as is the thematic, for the show is a multi-layered potpourri and the thread emotive, impressionistic, eminently powerful. Generous literary license must be granted those who dare dip into the numinous, the realm of experience beyond language.

With the audience loosened up and in his grasp Kling goes for the heart. Lazarus is in the place of the dead, along with a rich man (as in a parable), and suddenly, Kling is talking about his paralyzed right arm, the motorcycle accident: “When Jesus came for me, the rich man grabbed my arm and I had to leave it behind in order to follow Jesus.” The personal and biblical become one, as Kling locates himself fully in the sacred story.

Lazarus/Kling ponders: “Did Jesus take the right guy?” “Why was I brought back, for what purpose, to atone or to grow?” He proceeds to speak of God, truth, shadow, doubt, with freshness and vitality: “I would never respect a God I could understand.” “The journey is given and I choose my path.” Finally, joy: Somewhere within joy waits for us. “I rejoice,” confesses Lazarus/Kling.

A moving song caps the show: “Lay My Burden Down.” Lazarus, finally home, plays the harmonica, and is joined by sisters Mary and Martha: “Take my sins to the river and wash them away. Lay my burden down.” You want to sing along. It’s a moment of surrender, triumph, redemption perhaps, and unequivocal joy. Kling is radiant, and my eyes moisten. Feels like a homecoming.

How can he make me laugh so hard yet bring me to tears? Then the question hits me: what just happened here? A revival? Of course not, yet… didn’t I just hear some “testifyin’”? Yes, a testimony to human courage, to hope, to the possibility of joy despite losses, and to faith in God. This man’s serious—something got incarnated here. If Kling wonders why he was spared in the accident, he might ask the audience: If Kling can keep going, even find joy, maybe I can.

We long for joy, search for it, wonder who’ll show the way. Who are the high priests of joy? Perhaps those who’ve walked a difficult road, known loss, hardship, yet somehow made peace with it, traveling to the other side of pain where celebrating, praising, rejoicing arise. And when the high priest speaks, you listen.

Generously, Kling gives us what he has received, sporadic islands of lucidity in a sea of mystery, or as theologian Paul Tillich puts it, “fragmentary moments of unambiguity.” Thank you, Kevin Kling.

“Strange how often the person who penetrates the dark is the one to bring us the message of light.” (Nicholas Jones)

Kling has done the amazing: who dares tackle the personal, religious, spiritual with such openness? Masterfully, he portrays the Lazarus story infused with his own near death-to-life experience, surviving the accident 10 years ago. It’s an inside story on some level, a staging of Kling’s journey that taps into the mythic, the universal human story. Unobtrusively, his frank questioning, exposure and vulnerability, courage and faith, begin to pry open the tomb of our sorrows, doubts, fears, confusion, and leave us with questions: how do I make peace with my losses? What’s my purpose? Why have I been spared?

A fine cast completes the show: Sara Richardson (a stellar performance as Mary and others), Jacqueline Ultan (cello, Martha), Michael Sommers (puppetry), Eric Jensen (composer, keyboardist).

Joice Rejoice is bold, innovative, challenging, powerful: definitely not to be missed! See it twice if you can, and read the program. How often can you be with an artist in that fertile, nascent place where life discoveries are being made, and courageously, artfully shared?