Make "Room, Room, Room" In Your Heart For the Public Universal Friend
New folk opera at The Brick explores gender, utopia, and the end of the world
“I am the Public Universal Friend. The end of the world is coming soon. Christ is returning. You need to repent your sins. Follow me. I'll lead you to salvation.”
Playwright Andy Boyd jokes that only two demographics have heard of the Public Universal Friend: scholars of early American religion, and every trans person. Or both.
“There is some overlap!” added the writer, musician and performer syd island. “Not nearly enough.”
Boyd, playmaker Philip Santos Schaffer and island have collaborated to create Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of eternal glory for Thee and for everyone, an “acoustic hyperpop folk opera” centering on the Public Universal Friend, an American preacher from Revolutionary times who shunned gendered pronouns, answered only to “The Friend,” and founded a religious community dubbed the Society of Universal Friends. It runs at The Brick Theater through October 28.
Room, Room, Room delves into the end of the world, expanding definitions of gender identity and what it means to create a utopian society. It also contemplates, death.
“Love thinking about death,” said island.
But the starting off point was The Friend – or PUF, as the artists call them (pronounced “puff”).
PUF was born Jemima Wilkinson in 1752, in Cumberland, Rhode Island, to Quaker parents. Wilkinson took ill in 1776, most likely with typhus, and was expected to die. After the fever broke, they informed their family that Jemima Wilkinson had died, and that her body had been reanimated with the spirit of The Friend, a genderless and androgynous preacher sent by God to preach his word.
The Friend began to travel and preach, attracting devoted followers who became known as the Society of Universal Friends. When challenged on their gender or presentation, PUF would reportedly reply: “I am that I am.” The Friend was the first American to found a religious community, and among the earliest known cases of an individual living outside the gender binary.
In December 2019, a screenshot of PUF’s Wikipedia page went mildly viral. That was followed in 2020 by coverage on the NPR history podcast Throughline. Public awareness of this historical oddity seemed to grow: “FRIEND SAID NONBINARY RIGHTS IN THE 1700’S,” one tweet proclaimed. Not long after, Schaffer texted Boyd: “Have you heard of the Public Universal Friend?”
“Yesss!!!” Boyd wrote back. “A hero! An icon! We should do a play about them starring you.” He then revised his suggestion, following discussion with island (they and Boyd are married): “syd had a great idea: PUF should be played by multiple people.”
As it has ended up, none of the three are really playing PUF. Instead, the show toggles between found texts from The Friend’s times and present day reflections on themes brought up by their extraordinary life. Those texts include The Friend’s own poetry and writings by their followers about spiritual visions; while Boyd, island and Schaffer sing about everything from religious upbringings and sexual repression, to riding the subway late at night.
“Or about saying, “Fuck off, Joanne K. Rowling,”” said island. (That song is actually called “Transphobes Repent,” and the audience will be invited to join in screaming out their anger at prominent transphobic figures.)
Of course, the story of PUF and the Society of Universal Friends does not transpose neatly onto a modern understanding of genderqueer identities. But a straightforward, sanitized story of heroic representation would be tedious to these artists anyway. Far more of interest to them is reconciling The Friend’s radical gender identity with their more traditionalist doctrines, whether abstinence or absolution of sin before Christ’s imminent return.
“One of my personal slogans is ‘Protect Trans Stupidity,’” said Schaffer. “We’re always asked to be exemplary, and that sucks…. [This] is allowing ourselves to have ‘trancestors’ who we can recognize the complexity of.”
Of particular interest was The Friend’s brand of apocalypticism. They sought to create a utopian community for their followers, but concerned themselves little with the fate of anyone outside their band of true believers.
“Now the world is really ending/The only question left is how,” Boyd sings in the show’s opening number. “Will it be climate death or global war or famine or all three?/There’s no stopping doomsday now.”
Yet in face of today’s threats, Boyd thinks of our obligation to one another a little differently.
“It’s a very seductive attitude: we are going to create our own perfect little bubble away from society,” said Boyd. “There’s a parallel with climate doomerism. If you think the game’s up, that absolves you of trying to fucking change the world.”
While they don’t fool themselves that Room, Room, Room will change the world, the three do hope that audiences will leave the show considering their own feelings about gender, and contemplating at least one way – however small – in which their own gender has not felt like a natural fit.
“Even cis people can have takeaways about how they perform their gender in ways that maybe doesn’t feel useful or good to them,” said island. “We invite the audience to deeply consider their feelings on their own gender.”
“We invite the audience to be trans,” deadpanned Schaffer.
“To become trans, during our show,” laughed island.
Room, Room, Room, in the many Mansions of eternal glory for Thee and for everyone continues at The Brick Theater through October 28.