As the lights dimmed within the intimate space of Helms Theatre, the audience was introduced to “Canaan” with an apt, albeit simple statement — “Welcome to church.” Indeed, if any words could fully capture the brilliance of Micah Watson’s “Canaan,” they would have to be religious, for watching the play was truly a spiritual experience.
Set in Washington, D.C. around the period of upheaval following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., “Canaan” seeks to answer the fundamental question of how to follow God’s will when prejudice and systematic oppression threaten the very image of God. With such substantive thematic material, it would have been easy to slip into dark and bleak portrayals of the 20th century African-American experience. And yet, there is a resounding hopefulness and optimism that is pervasive to Watson’s work and truly points to the beauty and resilience of community and faith.
The plot centers around shy and increasingly passionate Louie as he grapples with what it means to become a man. In this sense, “Canaan” is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a poignant expression of family, religion and protest. The growth of Louie throughout the play is beautifully rendered by fourth-year College student, Jordan Maia, who brings an endearing authenticity to the role which only adds to the accessibility of the play as a whole.
Through the lens of Louie’s search for purpose and self-identity, the depth of the play is contrasted with the wonderful lightness of his blunderings of love with the rapturous and insightful girl next door, Lisa (Branika Scott), and a righteous newcomer, Camille (Jordan Maia). The effortless and seamless transitions from these moments of humor and warmth to raw expressions of grief and anger highlight the genius of both Watson, and the entirety of the cast.
Ultimately, these joyful representations of the unassuming and nonetheless miraculous moments of life are no less vital to “Canaan” than Louie’s broken requests of God to make him into a man. By including both, Watson acknowledges that life and cultural vibrancy can endure hardship and, at times, lighten the load of persistent and unyielding tests of faith.
Clear expression of optimism, however, do not overshadow the predominantly realistic implications of the play. “Canaan” does not promise sunshine and rainbows or even a content life spent working towards marriage and the proverbial white picket fence. Rather, it offers moments of respite and genuine familial love in the face of continued struggle. What makes “Canaan” transcend both unreasonable optimism and overwhelming hardship is the reclaiming of faith as a means of worship and guidance in moments in which a request of God feels inadequate.
Furthermore, “Canaan” is an ode to the defiant kind of faith that exists in black communities in spite of all societal efforts to diminish such faith. Watson points to the laughing uncles on porches arguing about whether God was a black man and says this is what faith looks like. She holds up the demure and passionate young woman who first felt God in the wrinkled arms of a sister and says this too is faith. She portrays Louie as lost and searching for God’s reply to all the questions he holds in his heart and says this is faith as well. In doing so, Watson does not seek to confine faith to any one church or path to justice or even any one cultural experience. Rather, Watson’s “Canaan” has the tremendous strength to set faith free to include the audience as they sit in church and experience what God looks like to her.