Are nuns members of the working class?: Geva’s “Sister Act”

Are nuns members of the working class?: Geva’s “Sister Act”

[David Kramer at the Geva gift table. Photo: Sid Rosenzweig]

The Geva season has ended, so this essay is admittedly tardy, but I want to continue the series in which I analyze Geva plays through a Marxist or neo-Marxist lens.

See Slow Food at Geva: More neo-Marxist fun and Yoga Play at Geva: Even more neo-Marxist fun

Fundamentally, Marxist literary theory posits that all cultural productions reflect and are shaped by the larger socio-economic contexts in which they are inevitably embedded. Marxism and neo-Marxism see that larger context as class struggles and conflicts. As seen in Parasite at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see?, a reading of the award winning South Korean film, sometimes class struggle is entirely explicit; often, as in Sister Act, class conflict is more implicit and buried. But to Marxists, class or economic conflict can never be ignored.

Frederic Jameson postulates an important analytic tool: the “imaginary solution.” Jameson argues that cultural productions always represent real social contradictions and problems. In doing so, various potentially disruptive or destabilizing tropes emerge. To resolve the conflicts, texts present imaginary solutions, usually via an unlikely or coincidental turn of events, sometimes termed “improbable realism.” Sister Act offers imaginary solutions.

Sid Rosenzweig [Photo: David Kramer] A professor of film studies at SUNY Brockport, Sid found the musical delightful and my Marxist reading somewhat reductionist.

The musical is set in 1978 in what seems to be South Philadelphia. Deloris Van Cartier is a Black aspiring singer auditioning to perform at her Black boyfriend’s nightclub. Deloris believes that Curtis Shank is going to introduce her to a big producer, but is upset when Curtis tells her she is not ready. Hurt and rejected, Deloris decides to break up with Curtis, but when she goes to find him, Deloris accidentally sees Curtis kill one of his cronies. Deloris runs to the police, who place her in hiding at a convent.

The plot turns on a final confrontation in which Shank and his cronies, dressed as nuns, enter the convent, seeking Deloris. Shank, armed and dangerous, tells Deloris to get on her knees and beg for her life. However, the nuns intervene to protect Deloris and then the policeman Eddie — with whom Deloris is having a budding romance — enters the scene and arrests Shank.

In the convent, Deloris learns the nunnery is in dire financial straits, may be sold and the nuns dispersed. Deloris proceeds to transform the hapless convent choir into a musical juggernaut, so successful they perform for the Pope. The choir earns enough money to save the convent.

Display case in the lobby.

The representation of Shank’s world is problematic. On the one hand, the image of a Black owned business is laudable, one surviving, against the odds, on the margins of the capitalist order. On the other hand, Shank, his mostly Black associates and employees are cast as gangsters, thugs, goons and hoodlums, arguably racist renderings. Shank represents a disruptive, destabilizing and threatening element. Ultimately, in a kind of imaginary solution when the nuns and Eddie intervene, Shank is excised from the universe of the play; there is no space for what might be called “gangster capitalism.”

While Shank as a threat is central to the plot, the convent faces a greater threat. As mentioned, the convent may be sold. We know almost nothing about the two real estate developers seeking to buy the convent and evict the nuns. We are only told they are a bachelor couple. Their implicit whiteness and gayness allow us to picture their world. Perhaps the bachelors live in upscale mainline Philadelphia and want to gentrify South Philly, maybe turning the convent into condominiums, making a tidy profit while bringing disaster to the nuns.

Deloris represents the imaginary solution. Her appearance in the convent is purely coincidental if not improbable. Deloris’ fortuitous appearance saves the nunnery. The gentrifiers retract their offer to buy, and even make a donation to the choir. Social order is restored. Capitalism may even have a heart.

Playbill and ticket stubs. Using the tickets was bittersweet. They are last two from my departed mother’s subscription. Sid was one of Carol’s best friends, and appreciative that she had passed along her seats.

If the gentrifiers are the capitalist class, then the nuns are the female working class. It may sound odd to think of nuns as an economic class. Normally, we think of nuns as strictly a religious class. I did extensive google searches and found no mention in the discourse on the socio-economic position of nuns.

However, I claim the nuns share many traits with the exploited female working class. First, Monsignor O’Hara is at the top of the hierarchy. The nuns and O’Hara’s second in command, the Mother Superior, must obey the Monsignor’s dictates. (And, of course, males restrict nun’s reproductive rights.)

The nuns are mostly powerless and penniless.¹ At one point, a nun finds herself in a bar/restaurant but has zero money to buy even a soda. Not allowed to accumulate wealth, the nuns give all their earnings from the choir to the convent. The nuns don’t control the conditions of their labor. They awake at 5am everyday to go to “work,” which is to pray. Their habits are like mandatory work uniforms. Their regimented behavior is carefully monitored, and they are always subject to discipline.

But the nuns do not see themselves as working class only a religious class. They could never imagine collective political action to improve their lot. The nuns can be said to suffer from what Marx called “false consciousness:” a way of thinking that prevents a person from perceiving the true nature of their social or economic situation. After all, as Marx also said, “religion is the opiate of the masses.”


¹ Nazareth College English Professor Ed Wiltse writes:

Given the vow of poverty, the class status of nuns and priests is complex. The former seems more easily understood as the working poor. The latter sometimes live lives that look more middle or upper class.


To a degree, Sister Act reminds me of the phenomenally popular Nunsense, performed many times at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in the late 80s before the Theatre closed for three years and then again to great success in the 90s.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (l-r) 9/25/89; 2/15/94; 12/16/95

Nunsense is the story of the 19 surviving Little Sisters of Hoboken, a one-time missionary order that ran a leper colony on an island south of France, who discover that their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, accidentally killed the other fifty-two residents of the convent with her tainted vichyssoise while they were off playing bingo. To raise funds for the mass burials, the nuns stage a variety show that includes solo star turns, madcap dance routines, and an audience quiz.

The plot of Nunsense is far more absurd that Sister Act, but in both, the nuns enter the world of entertainment to raise money.

I went to the 2014 performance at Blackfriars Theatre where Phyllis Contestable played the lead role. The humor of Nunsense is far more irreverent than Sister Act. Nonetheless, I noticed several nuns in the audience, laughing as heartily as the rest of us.

(left) Mandy Hassett (with puppet), Esther Winter and Phyllis Contestable star in Nunsense at Blackfriars Theatre, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, July 15th, 2014; (right) At the 2015 Park Avenue festival Phyllis promoted Nunsense via a set of semi-irreverent placards. Less than nun-like, Phyllis accepted my kiss. From Reverend Mothers, Empaths of Enlightenment, American buskers and more at the Park Avenue Festival

In 2015, I met Phyllis who I kissed in appreciation.



Are nuns members of the working class?: Geva’s “Sister Act”

“Parasite” at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see?

“Parasite” at The Little: What would Frederic Jameson see?



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About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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