Of the nine plays I (originally) found that met my criteria, I think it’s no accident that almost half of them have premiered since 2008. Whatever the tensions were between the LDS Church and the gay and lesbian community before that year, the heated battle over California’s Proposition 8 has increased them exponentially. Whether or not any of these plays was written specifically because of or in response to those events, the environment of anger and resentment must have been on the minds of anyone with ties to either community, let alone to both.
Little Happy Secrets, by Melissa Leilani Larson
Melissa Leilani Larson’s plays have covered subjects ranging from the court of King Louis XIV to a Filipina mail-order bride with supernatural powers. She doesn’t typically write plays about Mormon characters, but at least two of her plays have Mormon protagonists: the short play A Burning in the Bosom and Little Happy Secrets.
When I first became familiar with Little Happy Secrets, I was struck by how different it was from other plays about homosexual Mormons I’d come across. It was the only play that was about a lesbian Mormon instead of a gay Mormon, the only play whose main character was still expressly committed to her faith at the end of the story, and, along with Facing East, one of only two plays by a female playwright. (I’ve since had the chance to read the script for Be Normal, which is similar to Little Happy Secrets in a number of ways.)
Little Happy Secrets is the story of Claire, a young faithful Mormon woman—a returned missionary, no less—coming to terms with the fact that she is not attracted to men. In fact, she’s in love with Brennan, her best friend and roommate. In contrast with the men of Ranging, who are aching for some sort of emotional connection with other men, the closeted Claire has the opposite problem, since Brennan tends to be physically affectionate towards her roommate, not knowing that Claire is attracted to her. (Molly, the main character in Be Normal, has a similar problem with one of her roommates. As an aside, I find this a very interesting commentary on platonic relationships in male and female cultures. While I’m very aware of many social advantages that men have, reading Ranging reminded me of the female social advantages that I tend to take for granted.)
As the play progresses, Brennan meets a guy, starts dating him, and, in rather stereotypical Mormon fashion, the dating turns into “serious” dating and then to talk of marriage. The fact that this relationship is so stereotypical is part of the point. Brennan isn’t sure if this is what she really wants, or if it’s just a cultural expectation. Claire, outside the relationship, sees someone taking away the woman she loves, and realizes that there is no “stereotypical Mormon” path for her.
Little Happy Secrets is a very intimate story. It’s a one-act play with only four characters, and the main character, Claire, switches off between acting out the scenes of her life and turning to the audience to comment on them. The device makes the play even more personal; it’s as if we’re reliving these events by reading Claire’s diary. I think this is what Gideon Burton meant when he said “This is not the Mormon lesbian play” (emphasis added). The play is not epic or grandiose or spectacular. It is the story of one woman’s life and decisions, no less, no more.
(As a reminder, this play can be downloaded as a free audio podcast from iTunes and the playwright is looking to raise money for a production in Salt Lake City next year.)
The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon, by Charles Lynn Frost and Troy Williams
Dottie Dixon started out in 2006 as a guest on a radio show called “Now Queer This.” Troy Williams, the show’s host, had asked his friend Charles Lynn Frost to draw on his theater background and create a humorous character for the show. Frost ended up creating a character based on his mother: A happily married, faithful Mormon, Spanish Fork native with a gay son.
Williams eventually convinced Frost that they should expand Dottie’s short radio spots to a full-length play, which premiered in May 2009. Dottie is committed to her faith but she also loves her son and she believes that it is her mission to bring together the Mormon and LGBT communities. If Facing East is about uniting communities through grief and loss, The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon is about uniting communities through humor and compassion (perhaps in the hope of averting such grief and loss).
In addition to being an advocate for gay rights, Sister Dottie is an advocate for women’s rights within the LDS Church. Steven Fales also expresses solidarity with Mormon women as he waits for his Church court to begin: “I always felt I needed to win some leader’s approval. I wanted desperately to be like them, for them to like me—to be noticed. I was invisible. No matter what I did or how well I did it, I felt I was never appreciated or accepted for who I was. I felt I knew what it must be like to be a woman in this Church.”
It seems like an unlikely pairing—gay ex-Mormons fighting for straight Mormon women to have a greater voice within the LDS Church—but perhaps not. After all, gay ex-Mormons find themselves positioned in opposition to the patriarchal Church hierarchy and to traditional masculine ideals, and Mormon women find themselves defined in opposition to those things, as well.