If only we could all articulate the circumstances of a life-defining journey so clearly as Matthew Francis. If only we were all so compassionate and caring, capable of such patience and introspection. As it is, in a city as notoriously harsh as New York, The Gospel According to Matthew stands as a touchstone, as evidence that it is possible for the seemingly irreconcilable forces of Fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality to exist, lovingly if not cozily, in the same life.
A clear disciple of Anna Deavere Smith, under whom he studied extensively, Francis takes her techniques of docudrama a step closer to home, using them to investigate his own struggles with morality, identity, and community. It goes something like this: During his freshman year of college, Francis has a Born Again experience and becomes very active in the Fundamentalist community, but as he embraces his spiritual awakening, he finds himself unable to deny his homosexual thoughts and feelings. The Gospel According to Matthew follows Francis as he works to expel the "demon" living inside him and eventually learns to accept himself exactly as, ironically, God made him.
But this is docudrama, and the bulk of the play consists of monologues taken verbatim from interviews conducted by Francis from 1996-2004 with leaders of and participants in gay and Christian organizations. In Smith's proven effective style, Francis embodies each of these people through their own mannerisms and vocal inflections. There is no mimicry or send-up here, just the utmost respect and curiosity. Francis went to these people hoping to gain clarity about his own predicament, making a play that could very easily be about the actor's tour de force performances (though Francis is formidably skilled) instead a humble discourse on the definition of self.
That does not mean, however, that the ride Francis takes his audience on is a solemn one. Quite the contrary. Because all of the characters are in fact living, breathing human beings, Francis, to his credit, keeps them appropriately three-dimensional and complex. During the show I saw, the audience was having such a good time that, given the opportunity to briefly interact with Francis, they didn't want to stop.
The play has its chilling moments as well, notably when Francis is overwhelmed and can no longer suppress his homosexuality, a struggle that manifests itself as a literal encounter with Satan. It is also never easy to hear the blunt bigotry of Rev. Fred Phelps (of GodHatesFags.com fame).
Francis is not out to convert or convince, thankfully. He offers no universal answers, just a continuation of a long-standing, in-depth discussion. Actually, the only story that gets short shrift in The Gospel According to Matthew is his own. Francis's personal journey is so compelling that when he reconciles his sexuality with his religion, I was too invested in his struggle to not want more details. All the same, Francis brings camaraderie, intelligence, and humor to this hotly contested topic and we would be wise to follow his example.