A Feast of Freethought by Catherine Fahringer (April 2001)

During a period of three weeks, in this bastion of Catholicism, there were three different types of freethought entertainment. The two local stage productions were previewed and reviewed as what they were: works about freethought people and their history. The third was the professional film, Chocolat, the only one of the three productions which was not specified in reviews as being of any special interest to freethinkers, or as having any freethinking/atheist characters.

The Contender, released earlier, was similarly slighted, and I am speaking of reviews in The New Yorker, a magazine I had considered a rather sophisticated one. Apparently the A-word is a no-no even in the Big Apple.

The stage performances of Comfort and Southern Discomfort at our San Antonio Jump-Start Theatre were promoted and reviewed by writers for our local conservative newspaper as precisely what they were: about freethought and freethinkers. The word atheist (gasp!) was even used.

The Jump-Start productions were a complete surprise to our local freethought group (modestly known as Freethinkers Association of Central Texas because of the irresistible acronym). Fortunately, the guest speaker at our Solstice party knew what was going on at the Blue Star Arts Complex (which houses the Jump-Start Theatre), and, after meeting us, told the playwright of Comfort to get in touch with us because we were heavily involved in trying to preserve the history of Comfort. Bingo! Dianne Monroe called and was promptly invited to speak to our group.

It was like old-home week because her play was about the early freethinkers of Comfort, Texas, focusing on a mother and daughter who journeyed a hundred miles to cover the body of their son/brother with rocks to protect him until such time as he could be brought back to Comfort for burial. This young man was one of the Union loyalists massacred at their Nueces campsite by Confederate troops while trying to escape Texas. After the return and burial of the bodies of the victims in Comfort, a granite obelisk was placed to mark their gravesite. It is the only Civil War monument located deep in Confederate territory which is dedicated to the Union. It is appropriately known as the Treue der Union Monument.

Dianne informed our group that she had become curious about Comfort history after reading a couple of articles in the Express-News concerning the limestone cenotaph that present-day freethinkers had placed and planned to dedicate in honor of early freethinker settlers of that community. The furor over this mention of history (and its rejection) had piqued Dianne’s interest and curiosity. With some historical sleuthing and her creative mind, she wrote her play, Comfort, which was scheduled to open not long after our undedicated limestone memorial had been stolen and dumped in a pasture. All the timely coincidences made us an anticipatory audience for the two freethought productions.

Having met Dianne, and knowing that Freethought Forum was soon to have a studio date for taping four of our access shows, we invited her to be a guest on one of them. The TV show would give her an opportunity to do some promo for the Jump-Start productions. She was tied up, but suggested we might be able to get S.T. Shimi, the creator of the other freethought entertainment, Southern Discomfort. Shimi accepted, in spite of a heavy rehearsal schedule, and proved to be a spectacular guest. Being a dancer, her every gesture was a visual treat, and her voice was strong and resonant for such a tiny person. She is exotically from Singapore, but came to the states to attend college at Dartmouth. While there, she read about the aims and ambitions of Jump-Start (highly laudable: to give the voiceless a voice), and appeared on their doorstep after one short telephone call to make contact. Shimi’s Southern Discomfort was a solo dance-theatre piece. Through dance and spoken text, Shimi told of her mental journey from her Evangelical Christian childhood to adult atheism, and her physical journey from Singapore to South Texas (by way of New Hampshire). It was a new art form for me, and I loved it.

Shimi is proudly atheistic, and spurns the word “spiritual,” voicing objection to it every time it is mentioned. Because she is an artist, people insist that there is a “spiritual” dimension to her performances. That, she vehemently denies. Art is art; and trying to link it with a meaningless word makes no sense to her. Hear! hear!

Both Comfort and Southern Discomfort received excellent reviews in our local paper. We freethinkers thought they were super, but it was nice to read in one review that: “Provocative and bold, Southern Discomfort is also a hugely entertaining piece of theater.” The review of Comfort stated that “Dianne Monroe has crafted a moving drama based on actual events that few Texans know much about.” One line of the play, spoken by the narrator who tied the history and drama together, “reminds us of something disturbing,” continued the reviewer, which indeed it does. To move among Confederate soldiers, freethinker men would dress as women because women were essentially “unseen.”

How strange that a conservative local paper could report so openly of freethought and freethought history, while that dimwitted reviewer at The New Yorker gave such a vapid account of Chocolat. Well, of course it’s a fairy tale, but it’s a fairy tale for atheists. An atheist moves to a small French town, filled with repressed, bigoted, sour people, and brings joy and love of life’s pleasures to all but one of its citizens. That’s my kind of fairy tale and, as soon as I can buy a video of it, I plan to watch it once a week until it comes true.

Catherine Fahringer is a Foundation officer and freethought activist living in San Antonio.

Freedom From Religion Foundation