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Theater review: 'The Earth-a-llujah Earth-a-llujah Revival' at REDCAT

October 23, 2010 |  8:48 am

Praise the Lord and power down your iPod, Reverend Billy is here to save your bar-coded soul. The activist pastor and his Life After Shopping gospel choir rocked the REDCAT house (twice) on Thursday night in “The Earth-a-llujah Earth-a-llujah Revival,” part of their nationwide tour to end American overconsumption and environmental ruin. 

The inspired alter ego of Bill Talen, Reverend Billy looks like Val Kilmer impersonating Elvis and sounds like Stephen Colbert impersonating Billy Graham. With his pompadour curling high and smooth as a Dana Point wave, this blond ball of fire shudders with righteous (and highly entertaining) fury, exhorting audiences to unplug their electronics and resist the urge to buy. 

The reverend and his multicultural choir have staged retail interventions around the world, protesting the Disneyfication of Times Square under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and conducting exorcisms at ATMs owned by major bank and credit companies. 

This white-suited prophet paused early in the performance to note the irony of performing at REDCAT, whose major benefactors are Roy and Edna Disney. “We liked Disney-Pixar’s ‘WALL-E,’ because it articulated the environmental impact of the Walmart mentality,” Billy mused. “But then I guess that’s basically one sweatshop company making a wonderful comment about another sweatshop company.”

Not even the Mouse House could stop the reverend and his 18-member choir, led by the excellent James Solomon Benn, from delivering their anti-corporate message. Featuring a succession of solo turns from various members, the green-robed ensemble sang fervent gospel-inflected ditties against rent-raising gentrification, the devolution of democracy into capitalism, and restrictions against gay marriage.

Here’s where you shrug and say, “Isn’t Billy just preaching to the converted?” Yes and no. You didn’t need a focus group to know that most in the audience are Mac-using, Prius-driving liberals. But the night’s theme focused on the divide between people who know something’s wrong and those who do something about it.

Billy’s “sermon” recounted the activist’s recent trip to Washington, D.C., to partner with Appalachia Rising, a regional group fighting mountain top removal, a form of surface mining immensely profitable for coal companies. Coal provides 40% percent of the nation’s energy, observed the reverend, and by using more and more gadgets, we all perpetuate the demand for cheap electricity.

He pointed out that the members of Appalachia Rising, whose families have lived and worked in the mountains for generations, organizes by neighborhood, and not by Facebook; Billy argues it’s the “stickiness” of everyday, messy relationships that gives real cohesion to any serious activism. (A similar point made in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent “New Yorker” article about the seminal 1960 sit-ins at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.)

Whatever social network you believe in, the revival made its point with wit and unabashed showmanship. Reverend Billy knows how to make a spoonful of protest go down. With his pitch-perfect evangelical style and the infectious vibe of the Church of Life After Shopping choir, they could empower anyone to unplug.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

Photo: Reverend Billy, James Solomon Benn, left, and the Life After Shopping gospel choir. Credit: Steven Gunther