Note: I originally intended to make this all one post, then realized that it was over 3,000 words long, so I’m splitting the topic into multiple posts.
A few weeks ago, I learned that a friend of mine is raising money to stage a production of Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets next year. The play is about a lesbian Mormon who is trying to reconcile her sexuality with her faith. (It’s really unfair of me to condense such a thoughtful and nuanced play into a one-sentence summary. I promise I’ll say more about it later, or you can read about it and their fundraising efforts here.) It was staged last year in Provo, but Dave Mortensen (my friend) and Melissa would like to put on a larger production in Salt Lake City.
I decided that I wanted to write a blog post about plays by Mormons with gay and lesbian Mormon characters, both as a way of helping to draw attention to Little Happy Secrets and because of the topicality of how the Mormon community and the GLBT community interact.
By restricting the plays surveyed to those by Mormons playwrights, I’m necessarily leaving out Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, easily the most famous play about a homosexual Mormon, and the winner of two Tony Awards and a Pullizer Prize, to boot.
The omission is deliberate, not because I have any particular axe to grind where Angels in America is concerned, but because I strongly believe that the members of a community need the opportunity to tell their own stories, and I’m tired of seeing so much attention go to non-Mormons writing Mormon characters, while Mormons writing about their own community struggle to find a national audience. Even setting aside no-Mo authors who get basic details wrong about Mormon life (such as Bradford Tice and Andy Greenwald), it’s still very hard to capture the nuances of a cultural mindset if you’ve been raised outside the culture. To quote Jonathan Langford’s review of Angels in America:
Angels in America, as I see it, is not really about Mormonism at all. That is to say, even though it uses symbols from Mormon history and theology and features Mormon characters, it’s not about what it means to be Mormon, even Mormon and gay. . . . When it comes to his characters, it seems to me that Kushner is using Mormons iconically—a rather different thing from presenting them realistically. Not that his Mormon characters aren’t realistic, but I don’t think they’re realistic in their Mormonness. By and large, they don’t act like Mormons, they don’t describe their beliefs in terms that would be terribly familiar to most Mormons, and their religion doesn’t seem to impact their day-to-day lives in the ways that it does for most active Mormons.
Of course, if I’m restricting my choice of plays to those by Mormon authors because I believe that members of a community need to tell their stories, it’s also fair to point out that members of the GLBT community deserve the chance to tell their stories, as well, so one could just as easily choose plays that are only by gay or lesbian authors. It’s a point I concede, but I’ll leave such an analysis as an exercise for the student.
A few general caveats: I must admit that I have not seen any of the plays in question. (Living over 2,000 miles from Utah is a significant drawback for anyone interested in Mormon theater.) I have read scripts for six of the plays, listened to an audio version of one of them, and two more I know of only from articles, press releases, and interviews. (More details will be given in the notes section and bibliography.) In light of this incomplete access to information, I consider this post to be more of a survey and less of a literary critique (much less a review) of the plays in question.
A second caveat is that many of the playwrights or others associated with these plays would probably object to my pigeonholing them all as plays on the same topic. Playwright Devan Hite says of Ranging “The play is not necessarily a ‘gay themed’ play; likewise, it should not be regarded as a play about Mormons.” Gideon Burton says “This is not the Mormon lesbian play” in his review of Little Happy Secrets. And Eric Samuelsen calls Borderlands a play about coming out, “Not just coming out in the usual sense, . . . [but] about all the other ways we come out as Mormons, about admitting that we don’t necessarily believe what we’re supposed to believe, or that we don’t always find it possible to live the way we’re expected to live.”
As a librarian (worse, a cataloger), my stock-in-trade is taking works that are beautiful, unique flowers of creativity and shoving them into some artificially-defined category after a cursory review. However, I feel that I can still understand why a playwright would encourage an audience to focus on the entire message of a play, rather than reducing it to one single (hot-button) issue. That said, I hope that they will forgive me if I take one aspect of their plays and use it as a thread to tie together an otherwise disparate group of works.
For inclusion in this group of plays, my criteria were (1) the play had to include a character who is a gay or lesbian Mormon, (2) the playwright had to be LDS (or formerly LDS), and (3) the play in question had to have been published, produced, or formally presented as a reading. (If you are aware of any plays meeting these criteria that I’ve missed, please let me know.) The plays will be presented chronologically (as nearly as I can determine) by date of premiere. Some plays have undergone significant revision since their premieres. What information I have about these revisions will be given in the notes section.