Preaching as Performance Art

Reverend Billy invites you to join the Church of Stop Shopping

January 11, 2012

Bill Talen leads a public protest/performance art event as Reverend Billy.

Reverend Billy has hair so high it practically touches heaven. He wears a white suit and a collar that marks him as a man of God. Reverend Billy is not afraid to holler at you, because Reverend Billy is trying to tell you about the devil.

Bill Talen, 53, invented Billy 12 years ago as a parody of late-night TV megapreachers with Elvis hair and their eyes on your money. “One impulse I had was to appropriate the abuse of the relationship to Jesus that was being shown,” he explains.

The San Francisco-based theater producer was inspired by the way conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh twisted liberal politics into caricature — seen in Limbaugh’s obsession with “feminazis,” for example. “Limbaugh appropriated a classic progressive character” — feminists — to demonize for his own agenda, says Talen, “but that was rarely done in the other direction.” That’s where the Reverend, whose most apt mainstream analog might be Stephen Colbert’s faux conservative persona, came in.

Now Talen and his wife, Savitri D, lead the Church of Stop Shopping, a group of about 100 activists who demonstrate at malls and give public performances with gospel music and sermons. Billy uses evangelical jargon to preach that consumerism has possessed our culture and we should drive that demon out. The church is the subject of the 2007 documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?” and of Talen’s recent book, “The Reverend Billy Project” ($23, University of Michigan Press), which he and Savitri will discuss Thursday night at Busboys and Poets.

Shows are part worship service, political rally and performance art. “If we have a good show,” Talen says, “people for the first 20 or 30 minutes will just be in a free fall, having this raw, unmediated experience.”

The Church was present on the first day of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York’s Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17. “The institutions, the corporations, the logos were not there. We were discovering new ways to be together,” Talen says. During the Occupy protests, Talen was arrested in front of Goldman Sachs and spent 30 hours in the Manhattan Detention Complex.

To Talen, Reverend Billy may be a satiric continuation of the tradition of oration and preaching in America. But the message is real. Sometimes even Reverend Billy is real.

“Billy [was going] to the deathbed of a friend of ours,” Savitri says. “As he was leaving, he turned to me and said, ‘Should I wear my collar?’ And he put his collar on and he went.”

Busboys and Poets, 1025 K St. NW; Thu., 6:30 p.m., free; 202-789-2227. (Mt. Vernon Square)
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Marc Silver · January 11, 2012