Faith and Feminism: Diane Flacks’ Unholy Play Coming to Zoomer Hall
Photo: John Lauener.
It almost sounds like the setup to a punch line: “An Orthodox Jewish leader, an excommunicated nun, a Muslim lawyer and a lesbian atheist walk onto a debate stage …”
Except, this is no joke. In the Dora-nominated play Unholy, by Canadian playwright, actress and screenwriter Diane Flacks, four women from different ends of the religious and professional spectrum gather to debate the weighty question of “Should women abandon religion?”
“It’s funny because I’ve been thinking about religion and its effect on the world for a long time,” Flacks, who attended Hebrew parochial school as a child, told me during a recent interview. “In later years [it] made me question so much. And [all the] large forces that get away with oppressing people for no other reason than because God said it’s okay, now more than when I wrote the play, just feel like they’re rearing such an ugly head and need to be tackled.”
The playwright, whose resume includes writing for TV series’ like Kids in the Hall, for which she earned two Emmy nominations, Working the Engles and Baroness Von Sketch Show, notes that, “one of the biggest questions I had about it was why do people have faith?”
That question came to the fore a few years back when she spent time with her son at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, where she met another mother whose son was quite ill. “She was Catholic. And I just didn’t understand how you could possibly believe in God in a situation where children are suffering. And that’s what made me kind of jump off the agnostic fence because I thought, ‘This is real, [to pray is silly] and the idea that God cares is silly.’
“But then I met these really credible, interesting, thoughtful people who either still believe in their religion or believed in prayer and God and I found it fascinating. So I came from a base of religion, I rebelled against it and it would have been easy for me to write a play just about rebellion. But what was more fascinating to me was the women who I felt were credible and feminist and really forward-thinking and progressive who still held on to the idea of faith and religion.”
And so the seeds of Unholy were planted and, after hit runs at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre between 2016 and 2018, the play arrives at Zoomer Hall for four exclusive performances from November 16-18 — the first two of which are already sold out.
Set during a television debate, the four female leads — including Flacks herself — tackle the intersection of religion and feminism with balanced insight and cutting dialogue that skilfully manages to ensure that no one on any side of the argument feels left out or misrepresented. And Flacks doesn’t stop there, digging into the backgrounds of her main characters to explore the pivotal moments in their own lives that helped shape, and continue to challenge, their personal views on faith and feminism.
“I was looking for the issues that are the most outrageous, the most upsetting to anybody of any different religions and I think it started to really narrow into this argument about how [do] you defend religious rights when they’re in conflict with women’s rights? And who wins? As these characters started to become real people I found that they each would have a specific kind of issue that was [fixating] them … an origin in some kind of fierce moment of cognitive dissonance that each of them had. So I was able to focus the debate more on those kinds of things.”