Bible Beater/Bra Burner
by Jennifer Freitag

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Author/Director's Introduction

This project began as a personal struggle of identity performance. Although I have identified for years with both Christian and feminist ideologies, I often feared that the seemingly oxymoronic embrace of both labels would project my identity in one of two ways: a watered-down combination of each or an extreme radical. Christian and feminist stereotypes threatened to stifle meaningful discussion, damage relationships and cause me to doubt my own sense of self. I began to wonder if there were other women who identified as both Christian and feminist. I wanted to hear their stories and learn from their personal journeys. I began by asking: How do women negotiate the relationship between Christianity and feminism in their daily performances of identity? How does language function for and against this performance of self? How can staged performance be used to approach these issues of women’s identity? The answers, however complex, infinite, and sometimes incomplete, became manifest in Bible Beater/Bra Burner.

I began by interviewing fourteen eastern Iowa women during my graduate program at the University of Northern Iowa. I recorded, transcribed and gathered the women’s stories into a dialogic conversation (Conquergood, 1985) of perspectives. I reflected on my own experiences and research of the historical relationship between Christianity and feminism in the last century, as well as various theory related to liminality, performativity, ritual, performance of gender/sex, performance of religion, performance of language and third wave feminism. I sought to write an ethnodramatic script that would spark critical thought for all co-participants in its production, including myself as research and director, research participants, cast and audience members. Due to the large amount of polar dialogue already surrounding these issues in popular media, as well as my own personal experiences, I focused on offering utopian glimpses (Dolan, 2006) of merging perspectives of Christianity and feminism in an honest and respectful dialogue. Dolan’s “utopian performative” was made apparent in the small moments of understanding imagined between and across Christian and feminist perspectives, thereby inching a divisive battle of negative stereotypes closer to the unity of positive social change.

This could only be made possible by active self-reflexivity throughout the script-writing process. I examined my own point of view and my desire to privilege my research participants’ voices above my own. I strove to make the interview space safe for each woman to share her own experiences and perspectives without my influence or coercion. I used verbatim monologues from interviews as much as possible. I invited colleagues and participants to read the script for constructive feedback. I kept myself in check using Michael Keck’s (personal communication, April 23, 2006) methodological framework for ethnodramatic writing, which drove me explore my own preconceptions and expectations of the project, its impact on the community, various ethical issues, my position of privilege as researcher/writer/director and the honest realization of Bible Beater/Bra Burner as, ultimately, my interpretation of the participants’ stories. This ethnodrama is a dialogic conversation fashioned through self-reflexive ethnography and framed by critical autoethnography. It analyzes the ways Christian and feminist identities work for and against each other. It offers multiple, though not all-inclusive, perspectives on faith, motherhood, relationships, politics, same-sex relationships, choice and freedom within and without institution of the Christian Church. It utilizes performance as a “pragmatics of inquiry” (Conquergood, 2002) and deacademizes ethnography through its public performance (Mienczakowski, 1996); power and ownership are shared by research participants who are also challenged through critical and honest dialogue.

It is my hope that Bible Beater/Bra Burner is a catalyst for further conversation of Christian and feminist identity. It has been extremely empowering to learn from others’ struggles, articulate others’ and my own struggles through ethnodramatic performance and observe the overwhelming powerful experiences of women who shared in the process as interview participants and cast members. Bible Beater/Bra Burner proposes a new conversation about these identities that plays with polarity and challenges division. It allows difference and imagines respect and acceptance, beckoning social understanding beyond the stage.

Although Bible Beater/Bra Burner is best experienced through live performance, the written script and video clips of its April 2006 premiere offer a glimpse into Christian, feminist and Christian/feminist identity performance, the role of language in this performance, and the potential of staged performance to imagine utopic moments that promote respectful dialogue, social connection and self-reflection. I wish to thank Karen S. Mitchell, April Chatham-Carpenter, Phyllis Carlin, Catherine Palczewski, Amandajean Freking Nolte, Danielle McGeough and Megan Jones for their assistance is the writing and staging of Bible Beater/Bra Burner. I would also like to thank Brian Gwinner for voiceover production and Joyce Chen for video production.

Bible Beater/Bra Burner was presented to public on April 20-22, 2006 in the University of Northern Iowa Interpreters Theatre. The script was submitted as part of the master’s thesis, “Bible Beater/Bra Burner: Liminal Experiences of Christian & Feminist Identity” in July 2006 to the University of Northern Iowa.

Video Clips

1. Act I Scene 5: Jewish to Christian Conversion [4:17]
This scene depicts one woman’s struggle through her controversial conversion to Christianity. It explores religious identification as betrayal or sacrifice.

2. Act I Scene 6: Feminism [1:21]
This choral group scene discusses the interviewed women’s definitions of feminism.

3. Act II Scene 1: Christian-Feminist Spoken Word [1:39]
This poem was borne out of my own experience of identity performance. The group tableaus, created by cast members, created a visual interpretation of the text.

4. Act II Scene 2: Christian Stereotypes [1:50]
This segment exposes the hilarity of stereotypes.

5. Act II Scene 4: Religion & Abuse [3:05]
This monologue expresses a critical view of the Bible and violence against women.

6. Act II Scene 6: Childbirth [1:46]
This monologue, written mostly verbatim from one woman’s interview, poses sober questions about God’s view of women.

Works Cited

Conquergood, D. (2002). Performance studies: Interventions and radical research. The Drama Review 46(2), 145- 56.

---. (1985). Performing as a moral act: Ethical dimensions of the ethnography of performance. Literature in Performance, 5, 1-13.

Dolan, J. (2006). The polemics and potential of theatre studies and performance. In Madison, D., & Hamera, J. (Eds.), The Sage handbook of performance studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 508-26.

Freitag, J. L. (2007). The process and impact of ethnodrama: Reflections on Bible Beater/Bra Burner. Journal of the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri, 37, 6-34.

Mienczakowski, J. (1996). An ethnographic act: The construction of consensual theatre. In C. Ellis, & A. Bochner (Eds.), Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press. 245-63.

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