The mural-covered brick walls of Flax Art & Design are a fitting exterior for the art supplies that color the building’s interior. Theater is the lesser-expected art form that brings this building to life, and it presently illustrates the complexities of religious and non-religious worship.
Kicking off Oakland Theater Project’s 2023 season of History vs. Hope is director and playwright Michael Socrates Moran’s world premiere of “Exodus to Eden.” Drawing inspiration from “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Book of Exodus and “Angels in America,” the play follows a pregnant Miriam (Arielle Powell) and her fellow unhoused Oakland residents as they make an arduous trek to Oklahoma in hopes of a better future. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis are just some of the major obstacles that challenge their faith along the way.
Throughout the play, a taste of each character’s personal struggles surfaces. A silent woman mourns her child that died in a school shooting. An Iranian immigrant questions the meaning of her hijab. An undocumented El Salvadoran immigrant child is lost on the border. An Irish man is haunted by memories of causing his child’s death while drunk driving.
With 17 cast members and a surreal backdrop, it’s a lot to process in two and a half hours.
Like the hard-to-decipher news broadcasts sporadically cast on the walls throughout the play, many of the character’s tragic backstories are fast-paced and overwhelming. In the flood of information, names are easily missed, reflecting the numbing reality of consuming tragic news snippets through social media doomscrolling and seconds-long news reports. This overflow of tragedy is oftentimes desensitizing, but it also makes it easier to focus on the whole of the community — an ecosystem deeply affected by each member’s suicidal thoughts, dementia or death.
The root of these problems finds its way back to the omnipotent role of The Man (Adam KuveNiemann), the addictive antagonist who the people can’t stop worshiping. The magnetism of his businessman savvy strikingly offsets the fed-up teenage attitude of the pregnant Miriam as he repeatedly entices her to surrender her baby. Capitalism, Big Pharma and patriarchy are just some parts of the system that come to mind as he feeds his pet-like Guardian Angel (Samuel Barksdale) opiates, tempting Miriam with the same means of anesthetizing escape.
Amid the perplexing narrative, easy-to-digest dialogue manages to carve out moments of simplicity and hope. When the prophet Janardhana (J Jha) kneels to plant seeds, the imagination is attributed to seeds and dreams to soil: “Plant the right seed and you can change the world.” Even sprinklings of comedic relief make their way into the play. Upon hearing that birth is a holy act, Miriam’s annoyance shatters the divine with, “F— holiness; I just want ice cream.”
Although “Exodus to Eden” is considered a play, over 25 songs make their way into the production. However, unlike the grandiose song and dance numbers of a musical theater production, there is a rawness in their sonic delivery. Doused in melancholic harmonies, the stripped-down rendition of Sia’s “Chandelier” was nearly unrecognizable. While staying more true to the original, even the hums of Hozier’s “Work Song” were accompanied only by the stomping of feet and beating of chests.
By the play’s end, sounds collided with visuals as blood gushed from The Man’s literally broken heart, and the cast began a moving performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Inviting a sense of calm to the complicated narrative layers, the slow build of their voices intensified the intimacy of the room, reaching a momentary sense of wholeness that the play eagerly sought out.
“Exodus to Eden” may not be your happy-go-lucky slice of theater, but it deserves applause for braving creative risk. It doesn’t pretend to solve the problems it addresses; it simply puts them out there for the audience to pay attention to. Sometimes an ambitious performance tucked inside a giant art supply store is the most effective way to open eyes and plant seeds of change.