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Froth and go forth: ‘GATHER!’ at Reverend Billy’s new show

No stone tablets, just tree trunks: Reverend Billy compels us to bend to our better nature; or, barring that, just nature.
No stone tablets, just tree trunks: Reverend Billy compels us to bend to our better nature; or, barring that, just nature.
No stone tablets, just tree trunks: Reverend Billy compels us to bend to our better nature; or, barring that, just nature. Photo by Andy Blue.

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Marching as to war armed only with wit, a white suit and collar, and Elvis-meets-evangelist hair that’s every bit as enigmatic as the dome-topper sported by our president-elect, Reverend Billy is a preacher whose dire warnings about the high cost of putting profit before people no longer requires the leap of faith it did in 1998. That’s when he made his bones in the NYC performance art and activism scenes, with a series of Times Square sidewalk sermons admonishing “the imperialism of dreams that is marketed so brutally by Disney.”

Back then, even the most sympathetic set of ears did not always process the urgency of a plea to resist consumerism’s siren call. The ensuing two decades, however, give credence to this comedic, faux-cleric’s vision of an American landscape scarred by sweatshop labor, corporate-created toxins, species extinction, chain store domination, and an increasingly militarized police force.

Vowed Reverend Billy of the coming year, “Our politics is of us, ceding from Trumpland. Religion, the industrial universities, the large institutions, they are not creating safety. They are not creating prosperity. They are not inviting involvement. We’ve been conned out of feeling we have power. And so, we’re feeling a return to the local, to what’s happening in our neighborhoods. We’re ‘magicalizing’ the things in the foreground: What’s up and down my street? What’s in my essential reach? Who can I talk to?”

With the list of things that cry out for our attention longer than the list of toys a particularly greedy child has already mailed to Santa, a Sunday afternoon spent communing with the clapping, singing, swaying, satin-robed Stop Shopping Choir is a surefire way to charge your eco-friendly batteries and double down on your own resolve. “We inspire activists to their actions,” the right righteous Reverend assured, citing “GATHER!” (his current stage show) as a happening whose music and mood will “whip the audience to a froth. Then, we will all go out from Joe’s Pub and we will do that thing that is necessary to make change.” 

Having just returned from North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Nov. 27 performance of “GATHER!” saw Reverend Billy delivering a message “devoted to the plight of New York City’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.” Stop Shopping Choir bass section member Ravi Ragbir, who works on behalf of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, led the event. The theme of Dec. 11’s show will be “Neighborhoods Vs. Gentrification.” On Dec. 18, the run goes out with a bang, via their “Great Winter Solstice Bash.”

Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, having returned from a visit to Standing Rock — where efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline are ongoing. Photo by Sophie Molins.
Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, having returned from a visit to Standing Rock — where efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline are ongoing. Photo by Sophie Molins.

Like past Church pilgrimages to Appalachia, Iceland, and the Redwoods of the Northwest, spending time at Standing Rock “changed us,” said Reverend Billy, whose Dec. 4 sermon will focus on how “the transformation at Standing Rock — where it is impossible to make a distinction between prayer and protest, between singing and seizing sacred land — needs to be carried to many towns and cities. Living inside their principles for a few days, then flying back from North Dakota, we feel the show isn’t so separate from our life. We must press up against militarized and consumerized citizens at all points.”

To that end, Reverend Billy deploys his Choir like a Greek chorus that’s as nimble and theatrical on the picket line or the bank lobby as they are within the limited confines of a Downtown cabaret stage. “Yes, we’re a bunch of radicals who sing songs and we go to jail a lot,” Reverend Billy said, “but it’s also true that we have some great artists in our midst.”

Their ever-changing roster ranges from 35-40 musicians/singers at any given performance, and currently includes Broadway’s Amber Gray (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) and soloist Gina Figueroa, winner of the 2016 Best R&B Song Grammy for co-writing “Really Love” with D’Angelo. “She’s that mysterious Puerto Rican-inflected woman’s voice at the beginning of the song,” said Reverend Billy of Figueroa.

“About half of the Choir,” Reverend Billy noted, “is of European ethnicity, and half [those of] many ethnicities. We have African American mothers in the Choir, who really took us to the issue of being safe on your own street,” and inspired one of the numbers you’ll hear in this current run. Written by the group’s longtime director, Savitri D., after Reverend Billy and Choir members went to Ferguson, Missouri in response to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, the lyrics of “Get Home Safe” include:

Working late on Thursday

Trying to stay awake

Parking lot is empty

Get home safe

Man down, brother down

Man down, brother down

 

Friday’s family dinner

Don’t be late

Can’t keep your mama waiting

Get home safe

Saturday’s the wedding

Girls dressed up

Watching out the window

Get home safe

 

And even Sunday

There’s no resting

Even Sunday

Get home safe

Man down, brother down

Man down, brother down

“Our singing and my ‘preaching’ comes out of the heartbreak we all feel,” Reverend Billy said, in an interview conducted before his trip to Standing Rock, and while still reeling from the disappointing election results. “It seems to me that a lot of us who have let ourselves drift into a sort of mushy liberal middle ground — we’re suddenly radical. Our distance from this right-wing government is profound. We’ve always been cheerleaders for direct action, but now we must console as we inspire. Sorrow and inspiration don’t always go together, but we have this to figure out with those who join us at Joe’s — because we must act against racism and violence against the Earth.”

“GATHER!” is performed every Sunday through Dec. 18, 2pm, at Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St., btw. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St.). Tickets are $15; $12 with the discount code HONEYBEE; children’s tickets, $8. Food and spirits served; no minimum purchase. For reservations, visit joespub.publictheater.org or call 212-967-7555. Get info on Church of Stop Shopping activities at revbilly.com.

NOTE: This article was updated on Nov. 30, 2016 with info about the recent visit to Standing Rock and details on upcoming performances at Joe’s Pub.

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