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ANPF delves into Emily Dendinger's '#GodHatesYou'

Emily Dendinger knows that her new play, “#GodHatesYou,” will ask more questions than it answers. And, that’s alright, she says. She would rather audiences script their own answers. Her goal is to create conversation about spirituality, personal moral values and the ethics of the world.

“#GodHatesYou” follows the transformation of Laurel, a young woman at the center of a church that is vicious in its attempts to save sinners. When she begins posting the church’s scathing messages on social media, she is exposed to push back from the outside world. As Laurel copes with the repercussions, she begins to question her own beliefs. The play follows Laurel’s journey as her faith — her whole life — comes crashing down around her.

Ashland New Plays Festival and Curious Theatre Company of Denver will present a dramatic reading of “#GodHatesYou” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 25, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at ashlandnewplays.org or at the door.

The reading features Jackie Apodaca, Cameron Davis, John Alan Hulbert, John Jurcheck, Scott Kaiser, Stephanie Neuerburg, Nolan Sanchez and Martha Thatcher in acting roles. Curious Theatre Company founder Chip Walton directs, and dramaturgy is by Dee Covington.

Inspired by an article in The New Yorker about the experiences of a young woman who grew up in Westboro Baptist Church, Walton and Dendinger were intrigued by the woman’s story. They began work together on the provocative play, and in collaboration with the Curious Theatre Company, have been developing the play since the article appeared in 2015.

Westboro — not affiliated with any mainstream Baptist denomination — is infamous for its inflammatory hate speech against the LGBT community, Catholics and Jews, as well as Orthodox Christians, Muslims and atheists. The church also is vocal in its anti-Americanism sentiment regarding the U.S. military and politicians. Followers stage protests and picket at military funerals and public events carrying signs that read “God Hates America” and similar verbiage.

Dendinger’s protagonist Laurel is looked upon as the apple of the church’s eye. She’s the first to picket funerals of dead soldiers, knows what to say to strike a nerve in a crowd, and can debate the Bible with the best of them. Despite a stream of hate mail and death threats, she is convinced she’s saving the sinners of the world.

When Laurel ventures into the world of social media, however, she encounters the victims of her attacks and begins to question the church’s message.

Dendinger remarked that what started as a play about one woman’s crisis of faith and crisis in morality now looks at contemporary America ... a world marked by deep divisions and ugly disparagement, during a telephone interview.

“It’s interesting how the play developed,” says the Brooklyn-based playwright. “The world looked radically different in 2015.”

In regard to using the Internet to spread a gospel of hate and intolerance, “Westboro was the worst, now that is not the case,” she says.

“The play asks who takes responsibility for what appears in social media? Who takes responsibility for what is said on the Internet?

“A lot has changed in this last year, and we have a president who uses Twitter as his main mode of communication. I feel that our country is approaching a cliff. Will we fall off? How can we come back from the edge?”

Dendinger, a native Virginian who grew up in the Catholic Church, calls herself a lapsed Catholic. While writing the play, she found herself exploring her own spirituality and definition of morality.

She modeled the rabbi who is the moral center in the play after her grandfather, a professor who died nine years ago.

“I heard my grandfather’s voice as I created the character,” she says.

The play, she adds, changed her as she explored forgiveness and what she calls radical empathy.

Dendinger’s resume lists several plays with socio-political themes including “Hideous Progeny,” “No Home for Bees,” “Little House in the Big City” and “Pocketful of Sand.” She is a two-time winner of the Theater Masters National Play Competition and has been a finalist for the City Theatre National Award, Emerald Prize and Heideman Award.

“Emily’s curiosity as a playwright is unique and remarkable,” Walton wrote in a press release. “She is constantly drawn to topics often considered taboo or inexplicable. She has an exceptional gift for climbing into the skin of characters that normally seem foreign or forbidden.”

Dendinger calls those characters people we all know and hate.

“My plays tend to be gritty,” she says. “They ask the tough questions. ‘#God HatesYou,’” she warns, “is not a lovely play.”

Ashland New Plays Festival is dedicated to supporting the creation of new plays and assisting playwrights in the development of new work. ANPF is partnering with Curious Theatre Company to provide a 22-hour intensive workshop in Ashland the week before the dramatic reading. Dendinger, the director, dramaturg and cast will work together to continue to develop the play.

Tammy Asnicar is a freelance writer living in Grants Pass. Reach her at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Jackie Apodaca, top left, Cameron Davis, John Alan Hulbert, John Jurchek, Scott Kaiser, bottom left, Stephanie Neuerburg, Nolan Sanchez and Martha Thatcher join for a dramatic reading of Emily Dendinger’s “#GodHatesYou.”