Gay Mormons and Drama Part Two

Here is the second part of a paper that I wrote last year from an American Drama Class on Homosexuality and Mormon Drama entitled:

Saints in America: the development of an authentic gay Mormon theater in light of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America

Thanks to Zelophad’s Daughter for the excellent posts on the same topic that have inspired me to post this paper:

Memoirs, Confessions and Shock Therapy

Confessions of a Mormon Boy, a one man monologue written by Steven Fales is described by Fales as “transformational theatre (Introduction xviii),[1]” and this seems like an accurate description of a whole genre that has exploded in popularity in recent years[2]. Other plays included squarely within this genre are 14 written by Brigham Young University shock treatment survivor John Cameron[3] and Missa Solemnis: The Play About Henry, written by a non-Mormon that spent a month living among Latter Day Saints[4], which tells the true story of Henry Stuart Mathis a young gay man whom committed suicide. Likewise, although fictional, Carol Lynn Pearson’s Facing East is situated in the center of this genre[5]. All of these plays are characterized by their semi-autobiographical nature as well as their expression of many uniquely Latter Day Saint elements.  While somewhat dissimilar, all of these stories share certain elements including repeated attempts at reparative therapy, prayer for healing and considered, attempted or successful suicides. Mathias in particular is found with knees calloused from his intense prayer for relief[6]. The characters are devout and clearly show it in their thoughts, words and actions.

In each of these plays, in contrast to Angels, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—or as Fales describes it the “socio economic political-tax-exempt-multinational-corporation posing as the Kingdom of God on Earth ( p. 37) ”— is a formidable institution in people’s lives. Fales, Cameron and Matthias each served full time two year missions for the church. Several characters attend church sponsored Brigham Young University. These individuals live and breathe their church life and service. As Fales describes it

Like most Mormons, church was my life. Getting baptized by my dad when I was eight. Getting blessings from him when I was sick. Passing the sacrament to my mother for the first time when I was twelve in my new white shirt and tie. Ward Christmas parties, stake road shows, scouting and church sports, youth dances and firesides. Good Times. Good people! (p. 37)

Because of the central role of the church in each of these individuals’ lives, excommunication is a looming and almost inevitable threat in each of these narratives. Fales in particular describes the harrowing consequences of excommunication in great detail. Institutional punishment is a particularly awful fate that drives characters to despair, addiction or even suicide.

Hymns and Mormon specific songs play a large role in defining characters and relationships in each of these plays. The Pre-Show music for Confessions of a Mormon Boy includes music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir including a fade on “When the Saints go marching in, ( p. 9)” meanwhile while Fales speaks about his excommunication, the primary hymn “I wonder when he comes again” is sung  first by a child who breaks down and sobs, and later by Fales himself (p. 36). Likewise, in 14, “the storytelling is layered with snippets of LDS hymns, such as “We Are Sowing” and “When Upon Life’s Billows,” before building to graphic later scenes depicting what’s happening as Aaron is being electrically shocked while viewing pornographic images.[7]” The usage of these songs creates a jarring juxtaposition between the familiar and comforting, and the emotionally wrenching and disconcerting. These authors use these elements similarly to Kushner’s powerful usage of the Kadidsh at the end of Angels.

Linguistically, these plays are able to grasp the nuances of LDS language in an effective and poignant fashion. One repeated element in these plays is the linguistic unwillingness to admit that homosexuality is anything more than an attraction or a disorder. The voice over at the start of Mormon Boy bellows “ Brothers and Sisters: So-Called Gays or Gender-Disorienteds, may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control ( p. 11). After his excommunication, Fales is especially aghast that he “was excommunicated for something the Church said didn’t exist ( p. 41).” Likewise, the lead character in 14 undergoes shock therapy to cure his S.G.A ( Same Gender Attraction). Other distinctly Mormon elements such as referring to God as Heavenly Father are linguistic threads that run throughout each of these plays.

Specific elements of Mormon scripture are also cited repeatedly in these productions. Fales recounts his favorite passage from the book of Mormon (p. 11). Likewise Marcus the lover of suicide victim Andrew in Facing East recounts stargazing and looking for Kolob in the sky (Facing East, p. 43). Likewise, seminal works by church authorities are also referred to such as Spencer W. Kimball’s suicide inducing The Miracle of Forgiveness (Mormon Boy, Page 28) Thus, these characters speak, think and sound like members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Theologically, these plays also seem to grasp at the elements that make homosexuality a unique challenge for Mormons.  Fales originally Salt Lake City version of the play features a lengthy dialogue with Heavenly Mother the female deity in the LDS pantheon with reflections on the Mormon concept of pre-mortal existence. In LDS theology, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.[8]” Likewise, male and female marriages are believed to be eternal and a heavenly designed union. Alex and Ruth the grieving parents in Facing East reflect on the fact that their sons gay relationship could never have been eternal “Ruth: He Isn’t even a member of the Church. Alex: And if he was they could get married in the temple? ( P. 33) ” The eternal consequences of heterosexual marriage leads added weight to the struggles of the tormented gay characters in each of these plays.  Fale’s account of his wedding day is especially heartbreaking

“What was my most spiritual experience? My Wedding day. Kneeling across the altar with Emily. I’d been crying throughout the whole thing. I felt God had given me such a precious gift. Who else would Marry a gay man? I never wanted to hurt her. I intended to be with her forever. “( p. 39)

Fales is torn between his duty to someone that he cherishes and cares for, and his desire to be truly in love. Thus, while Angels is able to portray the disintegration of a family unit, these plays are better able to carry the spiritual and eternal consequences entailed. Likewise, Matthias and Andrew both commit suicide outside of temples as a way to express their spiritual anguish.

It is also because of this eternal nature of families that the actions of characters in these plays are so emotionally devastating to the families involved.            Each family tries to respond with love and understanding, Ruth the mother in Facing East Sobs as she lists all of the things that they did for their son including therapy and putting his name on the temple prayer roll (p. 52). Likewise, the closeted and struggling characters encounter positive spiritual guidance from members of the church and friends.  Pearson, Fales Mother-in-law, is a source of guidance and comfort. Likewise, a Bishop in Missa Solemnis is shown in a loving pastoral role as he has Matis promise to contact him if he ever contemplates suicide[9]. Yet, each of these individuals are also restrained by their spiritual belief that homosexual conduct is at its core sinful. Ruth holds firm saying that, “We could not bless him in his sin! You know that’s the one thing we could not do! (p. 52)” and declares that if they were wrong about homosexuality being a sin, “then my whole life is a waste and I would wish to be in that grave along with my son. And I would hope there is no resurrection morning ( p. 53).” She can love and care but never could fully come to accept.

Ultimately, the message that these plays convey is rather muted hope. Moments of charity and understanding break through the bleak horizon of depression and despair. Fales has his play funded by supportive straight Mormon friends (p. 74) and Marcus and Alex decide to go out to dinner together (Facing East, P. 54). There is the potential for understanding on the individual level. Indeed, Pearson’s play is the most optimistic of them all, as it suggests “The play is an indictment but also an invitation to dialogue.[10]

Yet, none of these plays feature gay men that are able to maintain their faith despite all of the challenges and contradictions. There is somewhat of a self-selection effect as those with the strongest exit stories are most likely to craft plays or short stories about that experience. Moreover, Fales, for instance, has actually become progressively more critical and vociferous in his subsequent works as he goes in depth into the secret/sacred Endowment ceremony[11].  These plays have appealed heavily to gay audiences and may be off putting to LDS audiences because of their usage of profanity and/or nudity. There are also accusations of exploitation of the stories of dead members to make a political point[12].  Is the genre condemned to have the only serious takes on homosexuality in Mormon culture come from outsiders or the disaffected, or can some internal dialogue be generated.

“If religious stories aren’t particularly unusual in Utah theaters, local producers say they are always interested in fresh takes on familiar dramas. “I think the tragic gay Mormon story has to be over soon,” says Jerry Rapier, who directed Pearson’s “Facing East. “Where is the story about the well-adjusted gay man who isn’t traumatized about separating himself from an unaccepting faith? Or where’s the story of a gay man who finds himself inside the faith?[13]


[1] Confessions of a Mormon Boy; Steven Fales; 2006; Salt Lake City

[2] The Salt Lake Tribune; March 15, 2008; By Ellen Fagg retrived on http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon493.html

[3]Latter-day sinners; Sharyn Jackson; Time Out New York / Issue 683 : Oct 30–Nov 5, 2008

Read more: http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/gay/68298/latter-day-sinners#ixzz0gtW4guS3 http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/gay/68298/latter-day-sinners

[4] 14 and Missa Solemnis are not currently available in print.

[5] Pearson’s play is based on the attempted suicide of a good friend; http://moviedearest.blogspot.com/2009/06/reverends-interview-facing-east-with.html

[6] Shades of Gay; ELIZABETH BACHNER ; http://www.offoffoff.com/theater/2008/missa_solemnis_or_the_play_about_henry.php

[7] The Salt Lake Tribune; March 15, 2008; By Ellen Fagg; http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon493.html

[8] The Family: A Proclamation to the World; http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,161-1-11-1,00.html

[9] A Latter-Day Loss

by Edward Karam

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry reviewed November 15, 2008’ http://www.offoffonline.com/archives.php?id=1492

[10] TUESDAY, JUNE 9, 2009;

Reverend’s Interview: Facing East with Playwright Carol Lynn Pearson;  http://moviedearest.blogspot.com/2009/06/reverends-interview-facing-east-with.html

[11]Steven Stanley
January 22, 2009 http://www.stagescenela.com/html/missionary_position.html

[12] http://www.fairlds.org/Reviews/Rvw200701.html

[13] Fagg; 2008

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