Cláudio Carvalhaes and his play When Wajcha Meets Pachamama at the New York Theater Festival
by S Brent Rodríguez-Plate
What does a well-respected Brazilian theologian with a tenured post at a prominent seminary in New York City, and the father of three children, who has published multiple books, do next? He writes and acts in his own play, of course!
Cláudio Carvalhaes is highly regarded in Christian theological circles for his passionate work in Liberation Theology and eco-justice. Authored books such as Ritual at World’s End: Essays on Eco-Liturgical Liberation Theology, Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality, and the edited collection Liturgy in Postcolonial Perspectives, offer ideas for the re-creation of liturgy within a globalized society that faces its own destruction through climate change. While Carvalhaes has published important written works, he is also interested in the ways we might perform change through ritual settings (communally based, formal performances) as a supplement to printed words on a page or screen.
In recent years, Carvalhaes has extended his reach beyond the academic, beyond written scholarly works, to actually conduct the performances and rituals himself. These interests have recently culminated in the writing and producing of the play When Wajcha Meets Pachamama. Originally set up as an intra-Union Seminary project, an unexpected connection with someone connected to the New York Theater Festival brought the play to a wider public that ran in the final weeks of October, 2023 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His students performed in the play.
Confronting our ends
When Wajcha Meets Pachamama sets the stage with the real-life premise that Carvalhaes has to tell the story of our earth, and all its grueling traumas, to his children. The difficult conversations are put out there and apply to so many of us: How do we tell our 9-year-old that the earth is dying? How do we bring up the “sixth extinction” and yet want to inspire our teenage daughter to do great things, to persist? For those of us a bit older, we are provoked to ask: How can we have purifying rituals like baptisms (or mikva’ot, or wudu for that matter), when the water is poisoned? How to grow the grapes for the wine that stands for the blood of Christ, when that very soil is full of pesticides and herbicides?
Carvalhaes’s theatrical production is meant to remind us of the earthly nature of our rituals, of the very earth-boundedness of the symbols that make religious communities who they are. The play reminded me of the ways we are human, emerging from the earth, the humus; and how our origins stem from the genderless dirt creature (ha adam) of Genesis 1 and 2. When we are fully hum-an, we might also regain our hum-ility. The implications for human relations with the earth (or as it is named in Incan mythology, “Pachamama”) are profound.
Sitting in the small theater in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I was moved to remember the importance of child’s play, perhaps the most profound activity we humans have produced. Carvalhaes, performing as the clown “Wajcha,” ponders and plays across the planet, discovering delight and devastation along the way. When Wajcha Meets Pachamama is hopeful but realistic, mixing laughter and seriousness.
Send in the clowns
For many of us who are middle-aged and have grown weary with academia and abstract theoretical scenarios, we seek out something more creative. As I talked with Carvalhaes after the play, I realized that I was in a similar position to him: similar age, similar professional position, similarly aged children, and similarly frustrated with my ineffectual rational arguments to my students and children. And then there are our own struggles in life, our questioning of whether anything we are doing in the world actually matters. Too much of this pondering might lead to paralysis, but a little of it might be enough to get us up and out of the rut. Carvalhaes provides an alternative.
Many of us at this point in life might seek the clown within ourselves. We put on a bulbous nose and big shoes and perform for those around us: for those we love, for those we don’t know, for those we hope might be part of our world in the future. Maybe our children. Maybe our students. Maybe our congregants. Maybe the stranger.
We do it because we continue to believe this can be a better place. We’re old enough to understand how little we can change of the world, but we’re compelled to work through play and love and humor and strength and persistence to continue on, to remake the world with a little less suffering than the way we found it. And we might enlist humor as a willing ally in the struggle. Think of it as clown activism, or clown theory.
This is especially important in an era when there seem to be so many more fractures. We face the sixth extinction, we are a part of global wars, mass shootings, pandemics, fires, and earthquakes, and it all comes to us directly through our little rectangular screens, night and day, if not through the very windows of our homes. We need some-thing else, we need some sense of healing mixed with humor, some clownish view of it all. This is what Carvalhaes’ performance does. It lets us know we might have a role in healing the world.
Humor and change
During the after-party, which was appropriately held at Reverend Billy’s Alphabet City storefront, “Earth Church,” someone announced the breaking news that former Friends star Matthew Perry had died. The room was filled with an inter-generational collection of people and yet all seemed to know who Perry was. In the following week, obituaries and eulogies filled the media, mostly pointing to little more than Perry’s troubled connection to addictive substances, and how much he made us all laugh.
There is really nothing in Perry’s character as Chandler Bing that challenged audiences to change their ways, to heal the earth, to work against racism or colonialism, but Perry struck millions of people regardless. Perry was a clown, in all the best senses of that term. In an era of declining mental health, laughter may actually be one of the best medicines.
Cláudio Carvalhaes understands this, even as he puts forth the hope that this laughter might jolt us awake, to take up again the struggles of Pachamama, to lend her our bodies and souls, our laughter and tears, to some sort of healing, some sort of wholeness. We are hum-an, from the earth we come and to the earth we will return.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Born in the year of the Fire Horse, Professor Rodríguez-Plate has traveled the world seeking ways that people practice and/or fight against religious traditions, whether ancient or modern. Convinced that religion has less to do with beliefs than with bodies, Rodríguez-Plate queries the ways people connect with physical objects through sense perception: the things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are what give us our spiritual dimension.
Alongside their work as a professor at Hamilton College, Rodríguez-Plate is a writer and an editor, presenting research at museums, cultural centers, and universities across Asia, Europe, and North America. They’ve authored or edited 14 books, and essays have appeared in Newsweek, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Christian Century, The Islamic Monthly, and the Huffington Post. Rodríguez-Plate serves on the board of the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica, NY and lives in Clinton, New York with his partner, two kids, and two black mutts.