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Theater Preview: Angel Reapers, A Shaker Musical

December 1, 2011
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The Shakers believed that having sex would send you straight to hell. To join the religious sect, you not only had to confess all your sins, but also commit to strict celibacy.

“These people devoutly believed in something that is impossible to do,” says Alfred Uhry, the playwright behind “Angel Reapers,” a theater piece that showcases the group’s songs, dances, and spiritual struggles. “We’re sexual beings – that’s how we all got here. To completely deny that that exists within you is going to cause a lot of stress, a lot of complications.”

The Shakers lived and worked communally, though men and women were always separate and forbidden from interacting. Their name stems from their intense style of worship: When seized by religious fervor (and repressed sexual angst) followers would speak in tongues, hoot like owls, and dance.

“They moved together in a sort of robotic way. It’s very rhythmic,” describes Uhry. “These were eighteenth century New England people, so they were also pretty prudish. They covered everything but their hands and faces.”

The show is not a history lesson – there aren’t many, if any, Shakers around today to verify the facts. Though Uhry and choreographer Martha Clarke selected about 18 real Shaker-written a capella songs from a collection of thousands for the show, the dances are new interpretations.

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