Michelle Antoinette Nelson has a problem with religion. Well, not religion as an idea, more how people use it and its artifacts such as the church and the Bible, that ostensible word of God. American Christians like to use the Bible as a blunt instrument to support their assumptions about people of different cultures, people of different colors, people of different sexualities, people of different religions. It's the sword protecting them from people who are different, period. And Nelson isn't down with that.
"Scripture becomes dangerous when you take something as genuine as the god concept or religion in general and use it to justify abusing other people on a daily basis," she says, sitting in the second floor of the Ridgely's Delight coffee shop Peace & A Cup of Joe on a gorgeous afternoon. Nelson, better known on the spoken-word poetry circuit as LOVE the Poet, is a petite powerhouse. She ran track for nine years through high school in Columbia and college at Coppin State; now in her 30s she retains a runner's compactly powerful litheness. Keep that in mind when watching this out and proud African-American lesbian deliver her thoughtful, politically minded words. Her emotive power comes from the athletic prowess fueling a sprinter's explosiveness.
That oomph pops up frequently when Nelson talks about God's Country, her first one-woman show, which debuts this week at 2640. It takes place at a Wednesday-night Bible study in a church, and Nelson brings to life the eight people who have come there for some reason. There's Marquisha, a teenage girl who is HIV-positive and Sean, who Nelson says is an "urban teenager, drug dealer at times, but he's terribly misunderstood because he's incredibly smart" that grew out of her poem "No Motivation." Mo is a blind, gay church musician. David is a married man who is living on the down-low. There's Joey, a "backwards redneck white boy," she explains, "who beat his wife until she shot him." There's an overzealous female pastor. And then there's Michelle, a version of herself, and also LOVE the Poet, who is hosting a poetry event that is taking place on the same evening.
They're supposed to be studying 1 Corinthians, where Paul talks about division within the church, but they never quite get there because everybody is trying to interpret the Bible to serve his or her needs. "We forget that everybody reads [the Bible] and everybody interprets it in their own way," Nelson says. "And where you might think something is so wrong, I could go and find something in the book that you live by that works for me. So everyone is looking for the pastor to confirm or deny what is going on with them, but the pastor is a human herself, so the way she applies it might be completely offensive to you."
She's zeroing in on the social contract of religion-or ethics or morality or any belief system, really-that flimsy hook on which we hang beliefs and the vast chasm that sometimes resides between what those beliefs idealize and how people act upon them in reality. It's a consciousness that's powered her thinking since she was a kid: A 10-year-old Nelson went to school on Jan. 15, 1991, positively livid that then-President George W. Bush was planning on launching Operation Desert Storm on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday (the first air strikes weren't officially launched until 3 a.m. on Jan. 17.) But it wasn't until she toured the country with Punany Poets founder Jessica Holter last winter, when they drove from Washington, D.C. to California, that she started to give dramatic consideration to her experiences with religion and how it is manipulated to oppress people.
For instance: Nelson was a bit shocked that some people around the country still question whether or not Barack Obama is a Christian while insisting that the president of the United States has to be one. "He has to be? Really? In America?-it tripped me out," Nelsons recalls. "Everything about this country is 'one nation under God,' 'in God we trust,' and there's supposed to be this separation of church and state, but obviously there's not if you're saying the president has to be a Christian. What exactly are you pushing me to believe in? Are you pushing me to believe in God or America as God?"
When she got back, she realized that in her poetry she already had a cast of characters who could explore her thoughts on religion as it plays out in America, but she wasn't quite sure how to fit them into a singular experience. Last fall's Baltimore Performance Kitchen's debut production, Red Flags, was one of Nelson's first stage experiences, and she acted in its Romeo and Juliet production this summer. Working on both provided her with the skills to transform her poetry into a dramatic work. She learned how to look at Shakespeare's rhymed lines and bang it out into dialogue, finding new cadences and deliveries for words she's performed, in some cases, for years now. She also gained the stage presence to believe she can carry a production.
And in the process she developed a larger perspective about her characters, the personalities she wrote through in her poems that became the people in her play-including herself. "I learned a lot about the character that is me, actually, and how angry she is at the idea of church and religion and people misusing it," she says. She brings up her character Joey, the wife-beating white man.
"I think Joey is the most fun for me" to perform, she says, describing a point in God's Country where Joey shares his experiences with the Bible study and tries to explain himself. "And he says, 'I got to raise my daughter right. I'm surrounded by nothing but faggots, niggers, and dykes. That's just how I feel. We're just in here keeping it real.'"
Ever the performance poet, Nelson pauses just for a moment to allow her words' stink to fill the room like a cigar's smoke. "He is completely unremorseful," she says. "There's a part of him that's like, This is how I know how to go about life. He means it. And I'd rather know that you dress up in a white hood and go out every day than not and think we're good. So he's in the middle of this Bible study saying he's surrounded by faggots, niggers, and dykes-he's talking about the world but he's talking to a microcosm of people who exhibit all of these things and he doesn't care. And he says, 'I'm looking for the God in you to get me through this. I just dissed your whole shit but I'm coming to you for help.'"
Nelson confesses that she's only recently begun to identify herself as an artist activist, somebody who uses her creative labor to address social concerns. And she's making a subtly sly comment here by having this white guy seek solace in a black Bible group studying 1 Corinthians. Yes, manipulating religious differences is a great way for instruments of power-be they churches or governments-to stoke political, cultural, and social differences. Thousands of years attest to that fact. But dividing people is also a great way to get them to fight among themselves instead of whatever structure benefits from keeping them all exactly where they are. So yes: Though religious beliefs have historically and are currently used to sustain hatred and bigotry, perhaps if understood in a different way, it may also be the road that can lead people to someplace better.
"We are headed for some very tough times," Nelson says. "Racism is overt. It is no longer undercover-it went underground for a minute, for the majority of my life. Now we have marches to commemorate marches, and I went down there. And thousands of people came out and everybody has a different sign and a different cause and a different this and a different that. And the question now is how do we get people to realize we can't put a Band-Aid on this anymore? If we don't get right with our spiritual side and understand that faith and religion are a huge tool in fighting oppression, then not only are we going to continue to be oppressed, we're going to oppress ourselves. And so now what?"
Michelle Antoinette Nelson performs God's Country at 2640 Space Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.redemmas.org/2640.