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Seeing home, from afar



NEW YORK Since leaving my hometown seven years ago for the Northeast, I've always felt a little uncomfortable telling people I come from Colorado Springs.

Most people seem to recognize the name from somewhere, and if I'm lucky, the association is benign: Olympic Training Center, Pikes Peak, maybe a cousin who went to the Air Force Academy. In a more politically minded crowd, it conjures another set of too-familiar images: New Life Church, James Dobson, the biggest McCain-Palin rally this side of Wasilla, Alaska.

So I go on the defensive. Yeah, I'm from there. Sure, you'll find a little of that. But I'm not one of them.

At least since I was old enough to pay attention, the place of my rearing has been lazily but not inaccurately tagged as the capital of American evangelicalism an easy go-to for reporters in search of voters for whom a slugfest over gay marriage is worth two failed wars and an economic meltdown. Colorado Springs is where I grew up. For many who dream in red and blue, however, it is a geographic symbol of religious conservatism at its ugliest.

It was refreshing, then, to find a rare bit of depth to that narrative, not on National Public Radio or in the New York Times Magazine, but in This Beautiful City, an offbeat, off-Broadway musical playing through March 15 at New York's Vineyard Theatre. The beautiful city in question is none other than Colorado Springs. And the play is not a work of fiction, but the culmination of months of on-site research by the Civilians, a Manhattan-based theater company that uses the stage as a documentary tool.

The play traces the rise of the city's evangelical movement through a revolving door of monologues based on interviews with Springs residents, several adapted verbatim into fully scored musical numbers. Loosely strung together by the infamous tale of former New Life pastor Ted Haggard, it functions mostly as a collection of individual testimonies. It is at once bizarre, hilarious, solemn and strikingly close to home.

The range of voices captured is itself an achievement. We hear from a second-rank New Life pastor who fights critics with charm; a downtown-dwelling atheist who may as well be wearing fatigues; a conservative Jewish military lifer, livid about the Christianization of the armed forces; an apathetic teenybopper who changes faces for her Christian and non-Christian friends; a transgendered man who lost everything by donning a dress but won't give up his faith, and many others.

This Beautiful City does not detach itself from its subject matter; passion is the order of the day. Through dramatic re-creation, it achieves a level of balance and compassion in its portrayal of the Springs that conventional journalism rarely does. The characters are not voiceboxes for a set of views; they are ordinary people whose lives have been touched by the fervor that surrounds them. This includes a climactic monologue by Haggard's son, Marcus, lending a tinge of humanity to Pastor Ted that even his most entrenched liberal nemeses would not easily shrug off.

Playgoers are not compelled to weigh one side against the other. Instead, they see the strain wrought on the play's cast, real residents of a real town. Wearing my lime-green beanie amid a sea of black peacoats, hearing arguments I'd heard since middle school, I wondered how my political leanings and aversion to religion had been cemented by growing up in the pit of an ideological turf war.

This Beautiful City is not an expos along the lines of Jesus Camp, nor an attempt to find compromise between religious fanaticism and its equally zealous counterpart. Rather, it succeeds by capturing the human side of an increasingly rhetorical feud.

The image that emerges is not of a fundamentalist's playground or sociopolitical laboratory, but a gorgeous mountain community that bears the scar of a culture war without end.

Zach Ahmad grew up in Colorado Springs, went to Coronado High School and was an Indy intern before graduating from George Washington University. He now coordinates youth media for the Harlem Children's Zone, a social services and education project in upper Manhattan.

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