WHAT: "So Amazing," a one-woman show by Ho-Ho-Kus resident Diana Brown, based on her experiences being recruited into a local church she says was a cult that brainwashed her before she was eventually able to break free.
WHERE: Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St., Manhattan.
WHEN: at , , Feb. 24 at 5:30 p.m., ,
TICKETS: $17; students/military, $12; Dramatists Guild members, $12.
Actress, playwright and cult survivor Diana Brown has a message for her audience: Watch who your friends are.
The 26-year-old Ho-Ho-Kus resident says her one-woman show, "So Amazing," is based on her yearlong experience being lured into a cult at age 23, brainwashed and eventually escaping to reclaim her life and reconnect with her family.
For some of us, it might seem impossible to imagine how anyone could take psychological and physical control over our lives against our will. But, she argues, that’s the point. This isn’t something that just happens to runaways or people estranged from their families, neither of which she says she was. This could happen to anybody. Everybody is vulnerable, to greater or lesser extents, she insists. And a cult’s recruiting tactics tend to be pretty universal.
"The first thing that is most prevalent is ‘love bombing’ – when someone wants to be your friend really bad, and everything they say is along the lines of, ‘You’re so nice, you’re so beautiful, you remind me of someone.’ They make you their best friend as fast as they possible can and they make you think they love you more than the people who really love you the most – your friends and your family," Brown says.
A graduate of Rutgers University (2011), Brown has performed earlier versions of "So Amazing" at TheaterLab in New York City and the International Cultic Studies Association conference at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe, N.M. She has performed stand-up comedy at Gotham Comedy Club and Eastville Comedy Club.
Brown is careful to straddle the line when talking about fact and fiction. For example, she insists the main character in her self-produced show is not her, but a fictitious character based on her. And the character’s name? The same as hers – Diana.
"It’s not an exact portrayal of my experiences. I don’t mention the name of any cult in this play. What this play says could be said of many cults out there. I don’t want to be pointing a finger at any particular cult. But I think the characters are all relatable in that the way someone gets recruited into a cult is pretty cookie-cutter and repeated throughout the world. I have met many cult survivors who have told me the exact same things. Who knew that me, a regular girl living in New Jersey, could have so much in common with a girl in California? This is how cults recruit. This is how people get brainwashed."
As heavy as some of the material may sound, Brown, who plays various other characters besides the one who is based on herself, says the piece is a comedy. She said her purpose here is to entertain — not just report. It is not a portrayal of the particular church of which she was a member, the World Mission Society Church of God in Ridgewood. The church is an offshoot of the South Korean World Mission Society Church of God, with more than 2 million followers worldwide.
Over the past seven years, the church has quietly gone about its business as its local membership expanded tenfold, and it opened what it called numerous affiliated churches along the East Coast. It was praised by political leaders for public service that included cleanup efforts after Superstorm Sandy.
But some former members have said publicly that the church has a largely hidden dangerous side, recruiting young people at malls and on college campuses and showering them with affection before eventually encouraging them to cut ties to family members who are critical of their new beliefs.
Two former members have alleged in lawsuits — one was dismissed and one is pending — that they gave substantial amounts of their money to the church after it drew them in without initially revealing its true theology. They alleged that they were pressured to spend most of their free time at the church and were kept so busy they did not get enough sleep, which made them more susceptible to the teachings.
The religion is rooted in a belief that a South Korean woman in her 70s is the physical manifestation of God. Some former members, as well as several experts, have gone so far as to call the church a cult.
Leaders of the church have publicly responded to its critics by saying in statements to The Record that the label "cult" is a form of "religious intolerance" used to denigrate groups with "certain views that are contrary to the norm." They denied preaching that the world would end four years ago.
And in a court filing, they said their "unfamiliar beliefs," which include devotion to Zahng Gil-Jah, or the Heavenly Mother, left them "vulnerable to persecution as any new religion throughout history." They called accusations made against them "fabrications."
Brown says writing the play was part of her healing process as she was reclaiming her life outside of the church. "It’s a very difficult group to get out of. I am just so lucky and thankful that my family was able to help me and counsel me and get me the help that I needed. At the time, when I got out of the cult, I was in need of extreme mental help. Writing this play was therapy, if you will, in terms of working through what I had experienced."
She says that of course the play has a happy ending, because she, herself, had a happy ending – she got out of the church and got her mind back. But the piece’s conclusion, without giving too much away, isn’t all hunky-dory, either.
"It’s a poignant ending. One that is sort of unexpected. For a lot of people the world over, getting out of a cult is not a given. You might watch the play and think, ‘OK, that’s how you do it.’ Not exactly. There is no foolproof method," she says. "There is no guarantee that a person is going to get out."