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Jade Sylvan contains multitudes.
The Cambridge-based artist, 37, has built a shapeshifting and multidisciplinary career spanning genres and mediums. From touring Europe as a spoken-word poet, to penning op-eds for various publications on queer identity, to performing original songs in local venues, and eventually evolving to producing full-length shows like “Spider Cult: The Musical” (2016) and the “Sailor Moon Shoujo Spectacular” (2018) at Oberon — Sylvan has spent over a decade embracing change in pursuit of communicating their artistic truth.
“Words that mean ‘changeable’ often carry some sort of stigma with them,” Sylvan comments good-naturedly, sitting in an empty classroom at Harvard Divinity School. “Like ‘capricious,’ or ‘mercurial.’ It’s like, ‘we don’t trust you,’ which as a nonbinary bisexual, I’m totally used to.”
We speak in the quiet calm before rehearsal begins for “Beloved King,” Sylvan’s latest project. A faithfully adapted, queer reading of the Biblical story of young David, the shepherd boy who would be king, “Beloved King” is also the culmination of their master’s program in ministry at Harvard University.
It also happens to be a musical. With Leonard Cohen-inspired ballads. And burlesque elements. Oh, and, Sylvan promises, it’s really, really gay. But more on that in a minute.
Before there was Harvard and “Beloved King,” Sylvan found themself in a period of restlessness. As someone so deeply engrained in the literary and performance art community of Cambridge and Somerville, Sylvan knows that queer spaces are sacred. The shattering of the community’s sense of safety after the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando and the looming Trump administration triggered a drive in Sylvan to seek a new calling.
“I wasn’t raised particularly religious, culturally Catholic, and I think my version of being religious looks very different from the cultural narrative of what a religious person looks like, or even believes in or does,” Sylvan says. “But art has always been my way of connecting. And to me, that sits in what I call a religious or spiritual place.”
Ministry just seemed to make sense. Sylvan had been drawn to theological studies in undergrad, and as a writer and performer, they have a gift for oration, for transmuting a room into something that transcends place and holds space for something bigger.
It was during their first semester at Harvard Divinity School that Sylvan became exposed to religious texts for the first time; they immersed themself in the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, enamored with the mythologies that have formed the foundations of the cultural beliefs and norms in which they were raised.
“I got into the artistry of it as well,” Sylvan says. “I feel very fortunate that I came to it without having, you know, years of indoctrination. Most people, I think, read the Bible young, or they’re just told the stories, and it’s very steeped in this certain religious tradition.”
In their pursuit of becoming deeply familiar with the text, Sylvan took the time to learn Hebrew — which brought with it new revelations.
“The Hebrew itself is very sparse. There’s a lot of space around what they actually give you,” they say. “And there’s a lot of space for what we call ‘queerness.’ There are things that, if you read them at face value, seem very explicitly what we would call queer right now. When something's written two or three thousand years ago, it's not the same, because the culture wasn't the same. But because of that, I argue that my reading of the text in a queer way is as valid as somebody who reads the text and says, ‘oh, there is no queerness here, that couldn't be right.’ I'm bringing my framework to it, and they are bringing theirs.”
With “Beloved King,” Sylvan is simply getting back to the roots of their spirituality, exploring the human connections, the warring desires and passions, the relationships between the figures of David, Saul and Jonathan at the core of these stories that have captured our collective imagination for thousands of years — and kept Sylvan up all night, mind turning, during that fateful first semester at Harvard.
The play follows the young David as he finds himself thrust into fame — if you’re familiar with the Bible, you may remember him as the slayer of Philistine giant Goliath. As he rises in prominence from lowly shepherd to a favored guest of King Saul and close friend to Saul’s son, Jonathan, David must navigate his relationships to love and power as he strives to follow the path laid out for him by a mysterious entity known as God.
“David is coming into this situation out of nowhere. He’s sort of brought into a world that he knows nothing about. And all of a sudden everybody wants him, and he’s never felt wanted before. That resonated with me,” Sylvan reflects. “And then there’s just the fact that there was this beautiful and sad and complex love story in our Bible that people don’t talk about in that way. I just wanted people to see what I saw in it.”
In 2019, Sylvan was the winner of Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies Billings Preaching Prize. Their sermon features another familiar Biblical figure, Joseph -- wearer of a many-colored garment who is cast into a pit by his brothers due to their jealousy and spite. At the core of Sylvan’s sermon is a call to choose love in the face of violence, to interrupt the flow of hate, to push back against the mob. When Sylvan speaks on these Biblical stories, what they give to those listening is unmistakably holy, and it is difficult not to see what Sylvan sees.
“I want people to realize that there might be queerness in the Bible,” Sylvan says. “Also, I’m hoping that people who have been harmed by the Bible might be able to find a way in. If that’s something they want, I want to give that to them. And mostly, simply because I think as a foundational mythology, it’s important to know about. Because otherwise, these stories are just acting on us, and we have no conversation with them.”
“Beloved King” premieres March 12-13 at Oberon in Harvard Square.
NOTE: Due to concerns over the coronavirus, the staging of "Beloved King" has been postponed to a future date.
This article was originally published on March 09, 2020.
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