Acting for the Right and Wrong Reasons

By: Devika Ranjan

April 23, 2014

“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Flannery O’Connor’s great American short story about covert racism during the Civil Rights movement, broke the barrier between text and performance during its staged reading in Lohrfink Auditorium last week. As part of the Faith, Culture, and Common Good conference, the short story was put to the stage— dialogue, descriptions, and imagery intact. A small group of actors portrayed the classic characters and a Greek chorus, narrating the story with O’Connor’s original prose.
Written to reflect immediate reactions after integration, “Everything That Rises” follows a bus journey of a jaded young man, Julian, and his innocently conservative mother. Julian increasingly yearns to rebel against his mother’s values during the bus ride. He attempts ‘noble actions’ in the name of civil rights, like trying to “strike up an acquaintance on the bus with some of the better types” of black passengers; yet his true reason, to spite his fragile mother, is thinly veiled. Julian finds a “certain satisfaction to see injustice in daily operation,” for the presence of racism confirms “his view that … there was no one worth knowing within a radius of three hundred miles.” Julian’s feelings of moral superiority provide a bittersweet comedy to his standoffishness. He swears that he is “too intelligent to be a success” as his whole world cannot quite keep up to his progressivism. The irony of the story lies in Julian’s reverse discrimination as he does right for all of the wrong reasons. His desire to fight against his mother’s control consumes him; because of this obsession, Julian simply acts for his mother’s sake and inadvertently loses his self-proclaimed battle.

Although the staged reading was identical to O’Connor’s story, the performance aspect dramatized the dialogue, and the Greek chorus animated her descriptions. The physical presence of actors allows an audience to engross themselves in relationships and see aspects of themselves within the characters. In this way, the staged reading of “Everything That Rises” created a truly thoughtful piece of theater. While remaining true to the original text, the performance brought the audience into this conflict without unnecessary modernization. The performance allowed the audience to watch Julian in conjunction with his thoughts, during which we could not help but examine ourselves in similar situations. Sure, the short story is set in the 1960s, but Julian’s petulant rationale certainly exists today.

How often do I act for the wrong reasons? Maybe out of spite, or to placate, to get someone out of my hair? And even if it’s the right thing to do, how easily do I excuse myself? In the Georgetown bubble, it is so easy to surround myself with theories, books, and GPA while discounting the people around me, reflecting Julian’s insistence that his morals and intelligence allow him to act for the wrong reasons. I sometimes forget the importance in kindness for kindness’ sake— compassion without trying to prove a point.

Every now and then, it’s crucial to take a step back from the action. Theater for change, like Compagnia de' Colombari’s portrayal of “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” allows us to watch characters make timeless mistakes. In a performance so universal, we have the invaluable opportunity to reflect on our daily choices, measure our morals and faith, our contribution to surrounding culture, and our impact on the common good.

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Acting for the Right and Wrong Reasons