It’s not unusual to see gospel musical theater on the marquee at the National Black Theatre Festival, which was held last week in Winston-Salem, where it was expected to draw sixty-five thousand attendees. The form has been popular in the African-American community since its origins in the 1930s, from The Green Pastures and Langston Hughes’s series of biblical stagings in the 1960s (including Black Nativity, a perennial Triangle holiday favorite) to the Tony-winning 1976 breakthrough hit Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.

That popularity has only increased in recent years, with touring productions of shows like Mama, I Want To Sing and My Grandmother Prayed for Me, which have largely clung to the values of traditional African-American churches. But Moses T. Alexander Greene, an emerging playwright at the helm of the upstart Raleigh company Li V Mahob Productions and a minister at Raleigh’s Baptist Grove Church, took the venerable genre in a controversial direction at the largest professional gathering of black stage artists in the world.

“I want them to come expecting the same story they’ve always received: something about Jesus and singing and praying,” Greene says, with no small amount of holy mischief. “Then we’ll give them this high-definition reflection of their own lives.” 

Greene’s drama, Pooled, was chosen from more than one hundred applications across the country for the festival’s twenty-five main-stage productions. (North Carolina Central University’s production of Blood at the Root, about the Jena Six case, was also selected.) But Pooled was the only gospel musical chosen this year at a festival that usually puts several of them on the schedule—a significant endorsement. 

“It just jumped out at us when we saw it,” says Jackie Alexander, artistic director for the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, the producers of the NBTF. “Pooled is breaking the mold of what people think traditionally in terms of gospel musicals.”

Greene’s script is drawn from the story of the healing pool at Bethesda as recorded in the book of John. According to that scripture, the sick would gather around its five porches in order to be the near the pool when an angel descended and troubled the waters. The first one in when the waters were stirred would be cured—but because only the first would be healed, people could linger for years in search of relief.

In the Bethesda pool, Greene found a potent metaphor for our times, so he set his drama in the present. At first glance, the community around the pool seems homey, and the people there—those seeking remedy, their friends and family, and those already healed—are just plain folks. Though they squabble at times, four vivid matriarchs—Grandma Rose, Grandma Doll, Sister Adah, and Sister Carry—seem to keep things well in hand.

Then we begin to notice the little fractures along the edges. The two grandmothers of central character Delsin, whose limp symbolizes deeper suffering, are always talking each other down. A third character sings, “I’ll pray for you, but I really don’t like you.” We gradually realize that healing means something different for each person, but it often involves finding answers to difficult questions—answers that others on stage have sometimes carefully concealed. 

“At the pool, you have everyday people and the stories they can’t be shielded from,” Greene says. “Whoever you are, you can’t be shielded from aging parents, from a marriage that looks good on the outside but is crumbling inside, or the sexual abuse of your children when you’re not there.”

That’s when a twist reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit hits us head-on: On a fundamental level, many of these characters are one another’s jailers, whose silences, words, and deeds prevent true healing. Sister Carry (India Williams) clings to her heartbreak at the hands of her estranged husband, Deacon Carry (Darius Hooks), a man whose addiction to alcohol and porn is so debilitating that he’s been repeatedly healed at the pool, but he keeps relapsing.

Freedher (Lynette Barber) is denigrated by prejudice against darker skin, and central character Delsin (played by Greene himself) has been stigmatized his whole life because he was molested by men as a child. When he poignantly asks why God permitted this, the community replies, in one strong voice, “Hush black man, don’t you talk about that.” Delsin has no choice but to conclude that “there is no place in the world and less than no place in the church” for him to talk about that dilemma.

These and other robust characters point to another signal difference between Greene’s drama and previous gospel musicals. The issues the characters raise and the people they represent have historically remained invisible in the genre.

“It’s changing up the narrative, and that’s important. Pooled addresses a lot of issues that most gospel musicals wouldn’t dare touch,” Alexander says, and it has the potential to open that sphere to a larger audience. “Some people define faith-based communities very narrowly. I know people from all walks of life, people of faith, but they often feel excluded from faith-based stories and musicals.”

Greene partly based the musical on his and others’ past experiences in unwelcoming churches. “Many of our cast members have had these moments where we’ve had to learn the love of God despite the conventional church,” he says. “We’ve had to learn to separate God from some of the iterations of the church.”

“When things get rough is when you need faith the most,” Alexander observes. “It gets rough sometimes for all of us. Pooled is about the beauty of what faith can do for the characters in this play, and for us all.”