When ‘Star Wars’ as a religious experience goes to extremes

     Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and the character Yoda appear in this scene from

    Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and the character Yoda appear in this scene from "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back," in this undated promotional photo. (AP Photo/Lucasfilm Ltd)

    Philadelphia storyteller Katie Samson remembers a date from her grad school days in Tucson, Arizona — a live performance of “Star Wars.” The megachurch setting seems artsy and avant garde until she and her boyfriend begin to realize that the “force” they’re about to witness is not exactly what Yoda had in mind. 

    Samson told this story at a 2012 FirstPerson Arts StorySlam. Listen to the story above and read a transcript below followed by a Q&A with Samson.

    [The audio version above was produced by Brett Rader.]

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    When it comes to dating, I’ve always been given the advice that, after a few dates, it’s really good to go on a date where two people are experiencing something for the first time together.

    So, I’m at a coffee shop with my boyfriend at the time. We’d been dating for a while. We’re studying what to do in the paper that weekend. And it turns out there’s a performance of “Star Wars” that’s happening — like a live performance — and it mentions that it’s happening at a church down in the south barrio of Tucson, Arizona, which is where we were living at the time in graduate school.

    And I thought it was one of those really cool avant garde theater things — like “Arcade Fire plays at the Unitarian church” — this is gonna be really interesting and artistic. And we were both in art school, so this seemed like the place to be.

    So we drive down, and it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s very dark. It’s Saturday night, 8:30. You can sort of see the church, approachig in the distance, with this big white cross that’s sort of … welcoming us in to the parkring lot — which is filled with cars.

    So we pull in and are escorted to our seats. And everyone there is very friendly and very nice. The church on the inside is the biggest church I have ever been in in my entire life. We get escorted to the wheelchair section. We recognize a few random people form art school that are like: “Yeah, you had that idea too! Cool.”

    The lights go dark, and “Star Wars” begins. And the music comes on, and the lights … everything is as it seems from the original movie of “Star Wars.” There were pyrotechnics. There was full-on costumes. And then there’s the scene where Yoda appears, and out rolls on this conveyor belt an animatronic version of Yoda that’s sort of, like, coming out of steam. Everybody’s enjoying themselves.

    And then the plot line sort of strays a little bit. At one moment, it’s decided that Luke shouldn’t use the force, because it’s pagan and Luke is very confused. And it’s like, Luke needs find Jesus.

    There’s a woman sitting two rows in front of me that’s like: “Luke needs to find Jee-zus!”

    And then the crowd starts holding their hands up in the air and swaying like we’re on a boat.

    And I start looking at Zack, and he starts looking at me, and we’re both like: “OK … This has turned.”

    He tugs at my sleeve at one point, and he’s like: “I think we need to get out of here.”

    And I was like: “No, I gotta see the end.”

    And I started realizing that the people that were sitting in my section — there’s an older gentleman with a walker, there’s a woman who’s with her younger sister, it seems like, who has Down Syndrome — and they’re starting to be escorted to this particular aisle off the side of the stage.

    And he’s like: “We need to get out of here right now.”

    And I was like: “Wha—?”

    And he’s like: “They’re going to try to save you.”

    Oh god.

    I’m in a wheelchair. I am paralyzed. I have to think about this for a moment.

    Because I’ve had thoughts of walking. And I’m a big believer that, some day, there’ll be a cure for paralysis. But it wasn’t gonna happen by Luke Skywalker in the barrio district of south Tucson in front of a bunch of strangers.

    So we start to exit, and it’s like: Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact …

    So we get right to the edge, and we’re about to go to the parking lot, and one of the ushers is like: “Oh you need to stay. Don’t you want to stay?”

    And I was like: “I’m sorry. I was so excited I just wet my pants!”

    She’s like: “Oh, go take care of that. I’m sure. You need to go and take care of that.”

    And to this day, I am proud to still be seated, because, who knows … that cure may come some day, but it sure as hell isn’t coming from Luke Skywalker

    How did you like living in Tucson?

    I love Tucson, the first few years I felt as though I was on the moon because it was so different from my previous years living in Vermont and going to college. It’s a very young city and state, many people who live there were not born there, it’s culturally diverse with a great arts community, but has a population that struggles with perennial righteous indignation when it comes to religion and politics.

    What’s the thing you remember most prominently about Fernando/Zack?

    His creativity and calm nature. He was raised in Alaska and I had never met or known anyone who was from there.

    How far did they get into the show before Yoda started talking about Jesus?

    It was almost Act III. I kept hoping he would appear, but after The discussion of Jesus, who knew?

    Are you a fan of “Star Wars” generally?

    I honestly was a fan when I was younger, and I loved Spaceballs too. I wanted to marry Han Solo.

    What’s the best performance you’re seen in a church — since “Star Wars”?

    I think of Good Heart Hall at Bryn Mawr College like a church, and everything I see there feels special. I also think Beacon in Kensington is a very special community church space that I have seen great things happen.

    Katie Samson is a museum educator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She’s also a spokesperson and storyteller for the Katie Samson Foundation, which supports research and quality-of-life programs for people with spinal cord injury.

    For more FirstPerson Arts audio, subscribe to the FirstPerson Arts podcast.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal