What’s so funny about losing control of your life?
Well, not much, except somehow a major element in Salvation Road turned out to be humor.
It just came out that way.
Salvation Road is the story of a young man whose older sister becomes so involved in a fundamentalist church that she cuts off her family and friends as “toxic” threats to her new faith. A year goes by without a word. Then one day, someone spots her selling flowers at a shopping mall in a town 80 miles away.
And so begins the journey for 17-year-old Cliff Kozak and his best friend Duffy. They hit the road one Saturday morning, thinking they’ll track down Cliff’s sister and bring her home long before their parents know they’re gone. The plan goes south pretty quickly, but along the way, the boys encounter a few individuals who help to educate them about the powerful grasp of this strange new church.
At our first read-through, some of the actors said the play was surprisingly funny given the subject matter. And there is a lot of comedy in it—comedy that I think arises from the truthfulness of the relationships: the brother/sister sparring, the lifelong friends with polar opposite attitudes about faith, family, adventure; the naïve optimism of young people with an unshakeable belief in the power of reason.
But the humor in the play is essential, because the story is at bottom, rather terrifying. It’s a story I know fairly well, because I went through it.
In the summer of 1974, against the better judgment of my parents, my older sister—then 19–and her best friend took a bicycle trip from Pennsylvania to New England. In Amherst, Mass., they came across a festival in a park. The Celebration of Life offered free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. My sister was deeply impressed. “They all seemed so happy,” she said later. “I had to find out why.”
That happiness, it appeared, sprang from daily practice of ‘The Divine Principle’—the gospel of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Korean “holy man” who had established a network of communities throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states—group houses occupied by eager young people who went out by the busloads to sell flowers in the name of fighting poverty.
For six weeks that summer, my sister did her best to fit in with the group. She moved into the house in Amherst and went out daily to sell flowers—not very successfully, it turned out. (She felt bad about asking people for money.) And she had another bad habit that set her apart from the others. She liked to take walks alone at night, to clear her head and think. It was a practice the leaders of the house did not encourage.
Sitting at home, wondering what had become of her—whether she was safe, whether we would ever see her again—was the churning anxiety of the summer. When she called home, my mother said, it was always clear that someone was sitting with her, listening in on the call. And she was not at all receptive to my mother’s pleading that she leave the group and come home. Steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition of self-sacrifice, my sister had surrendered her bicycle and camera for the key to salvation–and what promised to be a life of belonging, commitment, and good works. Her heartfelt desire to be part of something greater than herself, to find an answer to the questions churning within her, to contribute to some greater good—these were the honest longings of a young person on the road to discovering herself, but they made her easy pickings for an organization intent on exploitation.
It took a newspaper exposé – an article in the late, great Boston Phoenix – to persuade her that Moon was a fraud. A reporter who ran into her at the Celebration of Life and interviewed her there had promised her a copy of the story. He mailed the clipping to her at our house in Pennsylvania, and when it arrived, my mother and I pored over it. Our worst fears had now been confirmed, and we were terrified. When my sister called home that week, my mother read the article to her over the phone. My sister listened in shock and sorrow, and through her tears, finally agreed to come home.
When she talks about those days now, it’s always with a bit of a shrug and a slightly embarrassed smile.
And she can joke about it now: “I wasn’t a very good cult member,” she likes to say.
Which was lucky for her – and us.
So those are the seeds of the play – and though the characters are far removed from she and I, they wrestle with the same questions we did. Where exactly do you draw the line between a church and cult? Is it the point at which you are asked to abandon family for your faith?
And what of the people left behind–who have no idea why you’ve made the choices that you have?
That’s the untold story, I think, of the cult experience – told from the point of view of family and friends who’ve been cut off cold.
July 9 — Aug 2
1358-60 Florida Ave. NE
Washington, DC 20002
and other locations
Details and Tickets
Lab II, Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St. NE
5 shows only!
July 11 at noon
July 12 at 8pm
July 16 at 10:30pm
July 21 at 6:15pm
July 25 at 2:15pm
D.W. Gregory is the author of Radium Girls and The Good Girl Is Gone, both available from Dramatic Publishing, and The Savage Sex, available from Playscripts.com. Look for Radium Girls at Flat Earth Theatre, Boston, September 4-19 and Salvation Road, July 11-25 in the Capital Fringe Festival.