Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama

Conflict of Cultures

As a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and an active member of the theatrical community, the conflict between the LGBT community and the Church is an issue that has been impossible to avoid for me. Some people’s reluctance in talking about the issue altogether has not been an option for me. I have a number of friends and loved ones (both with connections to the Church and those without) who identify themselves as somewhere on the LGBT spectrum.  I mean, let’s be frank, I’m in theatre. In or out of Utah, there are always going to be many of my peers, co-workers, fellow artists and friends who are going to be gay. So it’s something I have had to face, even within my own soul and identity.

I personally know a number of gay Mormons. Many have left the faith (sometimes hostilely), feeling as if their worldview and practices are simply incompatible with the Mormon culture. Yet some have desperately tried to hang on, groping about for some middle way, whether by trying to make a heterosexual lifestyle work for them, living celibate, or hoping (sometimes beyond hope) that the Church will one day change its stance regarding gay marriage. And then there are those Mormons who feel so attached to the issue, even when they are not personally gay, that it has caused some painful soul searching of their own.

Conversely, I have also experienced some very personal and pointed prejudice directed towards me from members of the theatrical community because I am a card carrying, committed Mormon. I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached , but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.

I have no easy answers for any of it, but I have made a study of a number of plays that have dealt with the conflict between Mormonism and homosexual lifestyles and tried to grapple with the conflict between these two cultures in the best way I can. Searching through these plays has been at times uncomfortable, often challenging (in both the positive and negative aspects of that word), and at choice moments even enlightening and inspiring.  However, it’s made me doubly sensitive to how Mormons are represented in such stories, as well as tender hearted towards those who are caught between the monoliths of these cultures, especially those who identify with both. Continue reading “Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama”

Bizarre and Beautiful Stories: a review of Mahonri Stewart’s new book of plays

Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.

The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.

David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.

Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.

Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.

Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).

Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.

Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.

Mahonri Stewart will be at the Springville city Library in Springville, Utah on Thursday June 21st from 7:00-8:00 pm to discuss the life and work of C.S. Lewis as part of the “So You Want to Read!” series. For more from Mahonri be sure to check out his blog, And My Soul Hungered, and his posts over at the AML blog Dawning of a Brighter Day. For more on his theater company go to www.ziontheatrecompany.com

p.s. Dear FCC, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Zarahemla Books. And, also, Mahonri is a contributor here at AMV. Take all that to mean whatever you think it should.

_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February

Rings of the Tree Still Photo #1Zion Theater Company and Imminent Catharsis Media are presenting national award winning playwright Mahonri Stewart’s play Rings of the Tree on Friday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, February 4 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City; as well as Thursday, February 9, Friday the 10th, and Monday the 13th, at the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove. Continue reading “_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February”

A brief review of Questions of the Heart’s language in which Theric gets to say I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!

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During his one-man show Questions of the Heart (tickets still available — tonight’s show includes a Q&Q with the creator), writer/actor Ben Abbott speaks, I believe, 100%ly in the actual words he recorded during his interviews. One character early in the play speaks of loving those fabulous Primary ladies as a child, then clarifies that this is back when Primary was held in the middle of the week. What the original interviewee did not say (and what Abbott does not insert) is what Primary is, who goes to it, why ladies seemed to be in charge — none of that! Later in the play his characters use distinct Mormon phrases like “taking the sacrament” or “temple recommend”! They use uniquely Mormon meanings of common words like “gospel” and “ward”! And yet never once does Abbott slow things down to give the Gentiles in the audience definitions or explanations or anything else of the kind! He just trusts his audience to keep up. And, based on audience reaction, so they did.

I overheard Kelly Ann speaking with the play’s designer and her assistant about the Mormon diction and phrasing, and they couldn’t think of anything at any point during the play that would have been inaccessible to someone not Mormon. In the end, the only people worried about Mormon sprachen were the Mormons. Everyone else ate it right up and simply enjoyed the show.

I knew it.

Mormon Literature’s Once and Future King?

If you look at Mormon Literature in terms of how many church members interacted with it–i.e., how many members were involved either in its production or its consumption–one literary form was likely the King of Mormon Literature from the 1930s through perhaps 1970: Drama.

Continue reading “Mormon Literature’s Once and Future King?”

Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity

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benabbotshow

When we left off yesterday, we were segueing from the couple-creators portion of this interview to talking with Ben Abbott about the new one-man show he has written and is starring in this weekend (with, of course, some additional insights from his wife Barbara). If you will be in the Bay Area, click on the poster to buy tickets. Hurry — the show is expected to sell out.

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Th: The reason I’m finally getting around to making this interview happen now is Ben’s show this weekend. Tell us about it.

Ben: This is my senior thesis at UC Berkeley. It’s a one-man show about gay members of the church. When Proposition 8 happened I was the only active Mormon studying at PCPA (which is in California), where the majority of my friends were gay. I felt strangely caught between two worlds, with my family and faith on one side, and my friends and work on the other. I thought, you know, do I have to reject one or the other of these to some degree to truly embrace the other? Out of those ponderings came the question, well what about gay members of the church themselves? Talk about conflict. How do they reconcile the contradiction? Or do they? I spent a few months interviewing people, and from those transcripts I pulled segments and pieced them together into a one-man show. I think it offers a wider look at the issue than most of what I’ve seen that’s out there right now. This is not a monolithic group, and there is a huge variety of reactions to finding oneself at the crossroads of gay and Mormon, and I try to present enough of them to challenge just about anyone’s assumptions, no matter which “side” they’re on.

Th: Was this project an easy sell to Cal’s theater department? Continue reading “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity”

Couple-Creators: Ben and Barbara Abbott

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When Ben and Barbara moved into our ward last year as newlyweds, I knew I wanted to interview them even though they are still at the beginning of their careers and less established than other artists I’ve interviewed for Couple-Creators. I thought a) it would be nice to get a sense of how my questions get answered at the beginning of a marriage rather than a decade (or decades) in and b) it would be nice just to get to know them better.

Th: Let’s start though with Your Story. Because your existence as Mormon Couple-Creators is not only newly coupled, but, in Barbara’s case, newly Mormoned as well. So tell us how Ben & Barbara came to be.

Babs: It’s kind of a long, complicated story that involves my conversion, so ready yourself!   We met during a costume fitting for White Christmas. We were both working at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts (PCPA Theaterfest).  I was a Costume Design Intern, and Ben was a student in the acting conservatory.  It was my first show at PCPA, so I was taking full advantage of the fittings to scope out what the male actors were like.  When Ben came in I immediately noticed his height (I promise I’m not shallow, I’m just tall and notice a good tall guy…).  He seemed great: friendly, funny, intelligent, and he lived in Argentina for two years!  Cultured to boot!  Oh… he was on his mission … he’s Mormon… bummer.  Nevertheless, he left a strong impression on me.  We got to know one another more during A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He played Lysander and I designed makeup for the show — well, mostly, I designed makeup for the fairies because they were colored from head-to-toe like Hindu gods.  Ben’s makeup was standard highlights and shadows, but he needed a lot of help.

Ben: I would just like to say that you would need a lot of help with your makeup too if the help was so lovely.  Did I just call you “the help?”  You know what I mean. Continue reading “Couple-Creators: Ben and Barbara Abbott”

January’s “Mormon Drama Spotlight”

MORMON DRAMA SPOTLIGHT

Every month I also plan on setting little spotlights on little news items and tidbits about Mormon Drama along with the monthly Scripting Mormon Drama spot. So here goes our first crop of notables for the month of January:

The Book of Mormon Musical… by the creators of South Park!

South park Mormon Musical Some of us who have had the misfortune of seeing one of Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s strangely malicious AND strangely affectionate lampoons about Latter-day Saint religion, history, and culture on their  irreverent and crude show South Park . At least the tongue in cheek South Park segment about the people in hell being told, “The correct answer was… the Mormons,” has some healthy appreciation among Mormons and is often quoted with nervous laughter. There is also a relatively positive spin on Mormon family life and FHE in one episode, but their distorted and erroneous version of Mormon history shows Martin Harris as a duped idiot, with Lucy Harris being the smart one (of course neglecting to mention that Martin Harris and the three witnesses report to seeing the plates and an angel) and showing Joseph Smith as a charlatan offends Mormon sensibilities, making us all seem as much of stupid dupes  as their version of Martin Harris. And don’t get me started on their “Super Friends” spoof of creating a super hero team out of major religious figures, including Joseph Smith, Jesus, and Mohammed (at least we’re not the only ones in their cross hairs).  Parker and Stone were also the creators of the purportedly filthy film  Orgasmo, about an LDS missionary who becomes a porn star to pay for his mission (uh… what?!). So for some of us, the news about Parker and Stone making a Broadway musical about Mormons came with a certain amount of dread and morbid curiosity.

I’ve had my high school students authoritatively quote these twisted, offensive segments to me as if they were true, penetrating exposes on Mormonism,  so I’m a little afraid of where these two creators’ morbid fascination with our religion is going to take them this time and how it will again capitalize on us for a few cheap laughs and some dirty jabs. Of course, they’ll do it while stating it with enough of a smile and sense of pretended understanding that will illicit comments like this from Vogue Magazine:

“It is, hands down, the filthiest, most offensive, and–surprise–sweetest thing you’ll see on Broadway this year, and quite possibly the funniest musical ever.”

Here’s a couple of news items about the upcoming show (which begins Feb. 24th), including a filmed interview with Trey and Parker with the New York Post:

http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/popwrap/from_south_park_to_broadway_okelmt8N33qQOG1MvR15QK

http://www.playbill.com/playblog/2011/01/the-book-of-mormon-promo-video/

The premise of the musical:  two Mormon missionaries serving in Africa, seems benign enough until it’s revealed that one of them is a closet homosexual (of course pairing Mormons with this divisive issue hasn’t been done before! Here we go again…) and until you realize that nothing by these two satirists is ever benign.

New Play Project’s Two Upcoming Plays: He and She Fighting, A Love Story and WWJD

On a happier note, New Play Project continues its commitment to producing new Mormon Drama, with upcoming plays by Eric Samuelsen and Anna Christina Kohler Lewis. Continue reading “January’s “Mormon Drama Spotlight””

Scripting Mormon Drama: Series Introduction

Salt Lake Theater Interior 1890

Not living in Utah anymore has its advantages and its drawbacks… for me one of the things I REALLY miss is the Utah Theatre scene. Seeing original Mormon plays from New Play Project, or the the really interesting theatrical projects that happening these days at UVU and BYU, or seeing familiar names on the program at the myriad of quality plays performed in both Salt Lake and Utah County… it’s something I really miss. Fortunately, I keep my ear close to the ground (and glued to the events posted on Facebook and the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association website) to keep updated on what’s happening with Mormon Drama in the good ol’ State of Deseret. For, with all its quirks and foibles, Utah is still the center of the Mormon Arts, although it would be great to see a truly global Mormonism represented through Mormon Drama and other Mormon Arts (and for proof of such progress, one only has to look at the relatively recent international issue of Mormon Artist ). But, as it is, those of us out of the hive miss on some great artistic projects about our faith.

Fortunately, I have been asked by certain omnipotent powers that be here at AMV (okay, Jonathan Langford) to stay even more in touch with this side of my natural interests and start a monthly column about Mormon Drama. I will not always be the column’s writer, as I will often ask other guest Mormon dramatists and thespians to take over for a month and give us their two cents on the State of Mormon Drama. But I hope to consistently oversee the spot, to keep it running smoothly so that it can give some consistent information about my most beloved branch of the Mormon Arts. As far as I’m aware, others at AMV will be running similar columns about their own individual disciplines. Continue reading “Scripting Mormon Drama: Series Introduction”

Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One

File:Hero 1000 faces book 2008.jpg For the past several years I have had a connection that has been floating around in my brain which I’ve been itching to iterate. In studying things as far flung as psychology, C.S. Lewis, Mormon theology and history, literary/mythical archetypes, world religions, and diverse world histories, these disparate parts have led me to form a pattern to the experiences of C.S. Lewis, the life of Joseph Smith, but also to the Mormon concept of the Plan of Salvation.

I have been teaching about Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” in my high school creative writing class and so it has set me back on this track of thinking which has been boring its way into my everyday unconscious for a long time now. For those unaware of what exactly “The Hero’s Journey” is, it chiefly comes from a book Joseph Campbell wrote called The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Written in 1949, it was a very important book that set forth the idea that there are patterns and archetypes found in all sorts of disparate mythology, fairy tales, religious narratives, and folk lore. That all these stories from unconnected and far flung cultures follow one basic story. It is also a trend that can be found in epic literature and film, which is uncannily and unconsciously present in everything from Homer’s The Odyssey to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And many writers now purposely craft their tales to follow this pattern, George Lucas’s Star Wars being one of the most famous examples.

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BYU Experimental Theatre Company's production of _Prometheus Unbound_

I also purposely followed this pattern with my play Prometheus Unbound several years ago (and have addressed it less directly in other plays such as Swallow the Sun and my new work Manifest), much because the idea has fascinated me ever since I was taught it in my high school sophmore honors English class. Ms. Drummond mentioned Carl Jung’s revolutionary studies in the early and mid 20th century about archetypes (a simpler overview here) and the collective unconscious. In my terms, archetypes are repeating patterns that happen in mythology and other stories, in psychology, in dreams, and even (at least from what I’ve been able to observe) in many points in recorded, literal history (try applying this pattern to Joan of Arc, for example). Continue reading “Pre-existent Memories: C.S. Lewis, Joseph Smith and the Hero’s Journey, Part One”