The playwright Robert Askins likes to go right for the jugular. His dark comedy Hand to God opens with a sock puppet emerging from out of a black void to deliver a monologue about the creation of religion. The puppet, named Tyrone, talks about virtue, good and evil, and the divine. If Tyrone seems a little cynical, it’s because he’s actually the devil.
“There’s a really important thing in a play, where you take control of the audience’s attention,” Askins said. “And you’re, like, okay, this world is not your world. This is my world. And I’m going to show you some stuff. And for me, if you’re not aggressive, I don’t know what you’re doing. I want you, as an artist, to show me what the world looks like from inside of you.”
The puppet provides the comic relief for the human characters’ tussle with their own overwhelming situations and intense emotions. The protagonists, a mother and son, are coping with the loss of their husband and father, a setup that mirrors Askins’s life growing up in Cypress, outside of Houston. At the age of sixteen, Askins lost his father, who died of a heart attack.
In Hand to God, the local pastor has encouraged the mother and son to run a puppet club in the church basement as a way to stay busy. Unfortunately, the main puppet, Tyrone, becomes possessed and shockingly reveals harsh truths to the impressionable, teenage son. Meanwhile, the normally reserved mom loses her mind during a bizarre, illicit encounter with a kid in the puppet club whom Askins likens to Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club.
The play touts sex, violence, and crude humor, but at its heart it is about a family that unravels and tries to come back together again. “It becomes sort of an exploration of grief,” Askins said. “And how grief relates to our notions of the beyond and the religious, and how all of that leads to our behavior. Like when unusual emotional pressures cause us to act out, can we be forgiven?”
In 2011 Hand to God premiered Off-Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Four years later it opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, earning five Tony nominations, including for best play. After a brief run earlier this year at the Vaudeville Theatre, in London, Hand to God is coming home, to Houston, where it will open the Alley Theatre’s seventieth season. Previews begin August 19 and opening night is August 24.
Askins grew up immersed in the alt-Christianity movement of the nineties, when kids forged their relationship with God by attending the live religious event known as YouthQuake and listening to the faith-based rap-rock group DC Talk. He was a member of a Lutheran church with an evangelical bent, and had served as both a youth preacher and a singer in the choir.
“It’s hard to explain to people what that feeling is,” Askins said, reflecting on his overall experience. “Like even when you’re a really smart, young person, you, like, see these things when you go to these places, and your brain’s one half outside of it, but you cannot help but get swept up in that feeling. That feeling is strong magic. As much as it can be extremist, it can also be a way that people take to the streets for positive change. And that’s a really important conversation.”
But Askins became jaded and by the time he matriculated Baylor University, he considered himself an atheist. A contest for ten-minute plays was a way for him to process his deeply conflicted thoughts about religion. He wrote Broken, a drama set in prison that he describes as a “really aggressive allegory on the problem of evil.” The play upset many people.
“You take the passage in the Bible that says the devil was once God’s favorite,” Askins explained. “And you combine that with a passage from the Apostles’ Creed: when Jesus dies, he spends three days in hell. And that’s something that I had never seen visualized. What is it like to be Jesus in hell? And what is it like to be Jesus in hell, trapped with the devil, who you were once in love with?”
Askins was attracted to both the trouble the script stirred up as well as the attention it received. On a visit to Baylor, the playwright Romulus Linney gave Askins tips and encouraged him to develop the work. That led Askins to attend a summer conference hosted by the Ensemble Studio Theatre—the eventual producer of Hand to God—at the Lexington Center for the Arts, in upstate New York. There he workshopped the piece into the full-length play entitled Dog Show.
When Askins returned to Waco, he sold his car, packed up, and moved to New York City’s Spanish Harlem. There he wrote plays while bartending to earn a living. Out of ten works, one was finally produced, Princes of Waco. After that came Hand to God. He continued to bartend until the show had appeared on Broadway for six months.
Now he’s splitting time between Los Angeles and New York, working on a TV show about the NoZe Brotherhood secret society at Baylor; a movie, which he calls a wild sci-fi epic; and a musical about the world’s best Donkey Kong players. On August 25 he will make an appearance at Houston’s Alley Theatre to give a special talk following the show.
“Rob is funny,” said Mark Shanahan, the director of the Alley production. “Really funny. It’s an amazing gift to write like that. His play deals with serious issues, of course. But he couches things in such absurd ideas and has a really amazing ability to make us laugh even while we empathize with his characters’ pain. From page one, his voice as a writer is outrageous, brave, and bold.”
Alley Theatre, August 19 to September 18, alleytheatre.org
Other Events Around Texas
The Saint of Paint
Whether or not he ever taught you how to make “happy little trees” or to “beat the devil out of it,” referring to the excess paint on your brushes, the late Bob Ross had an amiable demeanor that made viewers faithfully tune in to his PBS show “The Joy of Painting” for years. Pay your respects to the soft-spoken artist at “All About Bob Ross,” an evening dedicated to the “Great Permed One,” as part of KLRU’s Next Night series.
800 Congress, August 24, 6:30 p.m., klru.org
Females Making Films
We’re one election away from a female president, but in Hollywood women are still playing catch-up to their male counterparts. In the spirit of equality, the inaugural Women Texas Film Fest will commence this weekend, a three-day affair with around forty short and feature-length films that have women serving in at least one of the following roles: writer, producer, director, cinematographer, editor, or composer.
Texas Theatre, August 19–21, womentxff.org
FORT WORTH/HOUSTON/AUSTIN/SAN ANTONIO/COLLEGE STATION/AUSTIN
Texas Wants You Anyway
When Lyle Lovett and his Large Band—two-dozen strong and dressed in cocktail attire—return to Texas for their final six tour dates, including two in Austin, there are bound to be sizzling versions of the crowd favorite “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas).” Also count on covers of songs by, and remembrances of, Guy Clark, Lovett’s songwriting partner and mentor, who died in May.
Various locations, August 23–28, lylelovett.com
One can safely assume that the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which premiered on television during the Olympics, has gotten fans of the galaxy far, far away frothing at the mouths. Remedy that with the Star Wars Marathon, during which the first three movies in the series to be released—A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi—will be screened back to back in a six-hour-plus triple feature.
The Hobby Center, August 20, 4 p.m., drafthouse.com
The Austin guitar-rock band Explosions in the Sky, best known for scoring Friday Night Lights, doesn’t believe in small talk—or words at all for that matter. That makes the ebb and flow of the epic instrumental songs on their new album, Wilderness, which will bring them home to Texas for three summer dates, all the more dramatic.
Various locations, August 21, 22 & 24, explosionsinthesky.com