There’s a gulf between how someone thinks they’ll react to a certain situation and how they actually react, said playwright Anna Moench. Real confrontations are often complicated by power structures and imbalances.
Exploring that gap is central to “Man of God,” which premieres Thursday at East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles. The play tells the story of four girls who go on a mission trip to Thailand with their pastor, only to discover that he has placed a camera in their bathroom. They grapple with the situation, each imagining how they would exact revenge. The play stars Roy Vongtama, who completed his medical residency in radiation oncology at UCLA, as the titular pastor, and explores prescient social questions, including how perpetrators of sexual misconduct should be punished and how cyclical the issue can be.
“The play is very much about growing up in rape culture and coming to a kind of cognizance of that fact as a young woman, which I think that every woman in our country has to become aware of at some point,” Moench said.
“When this is the culture that we live in and this is the world that we live in, it’s kind of hard for me to accept when people say, ‘Well, why didn’t you just say something?’” Moench said. “If over your lifetime, all you’ve seen is this kind of things happen and not get dealt with properly and get swept under the rug and ignored and erased, then why would I say (anything)? Why would anyone say anything?”
When director Jesca Prudencio first read the play, she finished it in one night, sending Moench a long email detailing her thoughts and reactions the next morning. Prudencio felt like she recognized her high school self in different elements of the four girls and connected with the play’s exploration of reacting to intense situations and redefining bravery, she said.
“As an Asian-American woman, I think how we deal with authority, … how we wrestle with that, is an ongoing issue,” Prudencio said. “Why I love this play so much is that it looks at that complication. … There are different ways to fight and I think this play looks at a lot of those ways, of what that strength is, what a victim or a survivor’s strength really is, (and) defining strength.”
Vongtama was also drawn to the play’s complexity, specifically the fraught relationship between the expectations of who a pastor is and the reality of the character’s actions. In addition to acting, Vongtama works as a doctor, and said he connected with the way in which both pastors and doctors are held up as saviors, and the fact that even those placed on a pedestal can still disappoint us. The connection served as an entry point to a character who was reprehensible, but still human, Vongtama said.
“The danger is to play him as a stereotype and … my challenge is to play the character real,” Vongtama said. “But in the same sense, he’s done something wrong and the question is, I think, a societal question. … When someone does something like that that’s bad, what does it deserve – does it deserve forgiveness, punishment, justice?”
The question of what the pastor deserves is explored through a series of revenge fantasy sequences that play out on stage. Though the fantasies are satisfying to watch, they’re also a representation of the expectations placed on survivors in terms of how they should react to trauma, Moench said.
“The fantasies are all taken from film genres of stories that essentially mostly male filmmakers give to us about what female revenge looks like or should look like. There’s a damage to that narrative because that’s not realistic,” Moench said. “You cannot apply that when you’re in a situation like this – you can’t vault into the air and kick him in the face.”
The fantasies range from a martial arts style sequence to a “Law & Order”-esque detective fantasy, and Prudencio said they serve as a chance to inject some visual creativity and comedy into the dark storyline. As Prudencio directed those scenes, she kept in mind the way in which the actions represented the blurring line between fantasy and reality by constantly breaking the rules and surprising the audience, Prudencio said.
Though “Man of God” deals with serious subject matter, it’s also characterized by the dark comedy of the intense fantasies, as well as the dynamic between the four girls as their personalities clash. Maintaining the balance was important, particularly in making sure the story reflected the nuances of reality, Prudencio said.
“There’s a lot of humor in reality, even in the toughest moments,” Prudencio said. “I personally connect to the dark comedy the most in my work because it actually feels the most real to me. … In life, we find a lot of humor in the seriousness.”