Theater Review: Questions of the Heart

By Kelly Ann

Tonight I attended a sold-out performance of a one-man show entitled “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity” by my friend Ben Abbott.  Performing his senior honors thesis through UC Berkeley’s Theater Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) program, Ben portrayed real life stories of what it means to be gay and Mormon.  He turned segments of interview transcripts with four female and eight male gay members of the church or those connected to the issue in some way into the script highlighting these individuals’ experiences.

The stories from around the country encompassed a range of ages and experiences as well as activity and belief in the LDS church.  Ben portrayed both gay men and women including three individuals in mixed orientation marriages.  In an interview with Theric Jepson on A Motley Vision, Ben stated that while he found a wide range of experiences and opinions on the subject of homosexuality, the one thing the interviews had in common was that the people, whether they loved or hated the Church or were closeted or in a same sex marriage, were grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories.  Bearing their souls to a stranger, they were enthusiastic about the project’s goal to portray a gamut of experiences to increase understanding of how gay Mormons reconcile (or don’t reconcile) their two very different worlds.

With an interest in the subject and having previously seen Ben perform the one-man show “Jacob Marley’s A Christmas Carol,” I had high expectations walking into the lively Zellerbach performance hall at UC Berkeley.  Knowing he chose the format of the one-man play as a promise of authenticity to his interviewees to portray their experiences as he heard them, I trusted Ben to be able to give a good and honest show that would portray both the serious and funny heartwarming moments (as also promised by his wife Barbara’s critique of the script).  I was not disappointed.

With the stage set up simply as a living room, the script threaded the interviews together, following the individuals through five different segments.  While the “cast of characters” was listed in the program, Ben’s voice, posture, visual cues, lighting, and other effects uniquely (and accurately for the individuals I personally know) portrayed each individual which made it easy to follow as the show jumped back and forth between people.  The combined script very naturally moved through the themes of “the problem”, “trying to change”, “mixed-orientation marriages”, “suicide”, and “the decision”.  I found myself captivated by the different stories laughing and crying as appropriate.  I related to both the individual who left saying “i just don’t know what to believe” as well as the actively gay man who regularly attends church dealing with dissonance and wanting change that it would be harder “if i was a realist.”  As Ben sat and lied on the floor in part of the serious segment discussing the reality of suicide amongst gay members, I was profoundly moved by the line of an interviewee “our religion should never cause someone to commit suicide”.  I was also impressed with Ben’s ability to portray how he himself struggled to understand the complexity of all the experiences of the people he interviewed.

The goal of “Questions of the Heart” was not to offer the answers but rather to build empathy and understanding.  As further described in Ben’s interview on A Motley Vision, while the theme is very topical post-prop8, it was enthusiastically received by the TDPS program at UC Berkeley given Ben was coming from the viewpoint of someone straight, actively affiliated with the Mormon church, and honestly curious to understand the perspectives of gay Mormons.  Ben also stated the project was well received because it encompasses key elements of performance studies including intersectionality, ethnography, performance of self, and dialectic performance (for which I am grateful as the one-man show was truly a production involving an assistant director, stage manager, lighting designer, costume designer, and others).

Needless to say, I think the show did an amazing job of creating empathy and understanding.  I was left in awe of everything that went into the performance.  While affiliated with the UC Berkeley undergraduate program, the show was of a professional caliber.  I hope that Ben will be able to share his play outside of Berkeley such that more people will think about what it means to be gay and Mormon.

If you are in the Bay Area, I highly encourage attending one of the three more performances before it closes on Saturday (click here for tickets).  As a nice bonus, a second student showcase follows intermission in which Elijah Guo highlights the poems of Robert Haas in a performance entitled “Time and Materials.”  And even if you are not in the area, I recommend checking out the following write-upss of Ben Abbott’s “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity.”

 

 

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16 Responses

  1. Kelly Ann says:

    As as side note, for me, the performance really is part of the ongoing conversation that many in this area have been having post prop8 to recognize the experiences of gay Mormons. Please see the links below of some other efforts that I believe have made a difference to our community and helped prepare local members for this performance.

    http://www.clpearson.com/oaklandstake.htm
    http://wwrn.org/articles/32625/
    http://www.clpearson.com/Elder%20Marlin%20K.%20Jensen%20Listens%20to%20Prop%208%20Pain.pdf
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/holly-welker/elder-jensen-prop-8-apology_b_739609.html
    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/home/50413221-76/church-lds-packer-speech.html.csp

  2. Caroline says:

    Kelly Ann,
    Thanks for the review and letting us know about this. It sounds really wonderful. I hope he takes his show on the road someday and comes to So Cal.

    Do you have any sense as to how more orthodox members responded to the show?

    • kelly ann says:

      Caroline, I don’t know if there were any orthodox members present. However, as the event was announced as a general fyi on our wards internal listserves, just like kids musical performances would be, all I have heard is positive feedback at the idea. It really does go along with the fact that there have been other efforts in the area to recognize and love gay people as we would anybody else. I will let you know if I hear negative perceptions but I was more impressed with how well it was received by non-Mormons as noted in Theric Jepson,s pingback.

  3. amelia says:

    This sounds like an amazing piece & performance. I don’t have a lot of hope that the church will change its stance re: homosexuality in the short term. on the other hand, i have no doubt it will change that stance in the long term. I very much believe that pieces like this which help church members understand the reality of homosexual Mormons will play an important role in bringing about that change.

    • kelly ann says:

      Amelia, I whole-heartily agree. My eyes have been opened as I have come to understand struggles of friends, and appreciate stories of gay individuals and families. Someone I know likes to say thereare two types of people in the church: ones that know gay people or ones that don’t think they know any gay people. While this oversimplifies it, I agree that perspectives change as one understands or tries to understand the experiences of others.

  4. TopHat says:

    I wish I had known about this sooner! I’ve already made plans for Saturday! Alas!

    • kelly ann says:

      Tophat, im sorry you didn’t know about it sooner. Next time I will make sure to forward you information as soon as I know. But like I said in the review, I really hope there will be opportunities in the future. I dream of it going to the berkeley repertoire theater or the marsh in san francisco and then to southern California and onwards. But then again I have never been a realist …

  5. Samantha says:

    About four years ago, my good friend, Jason, and I said to each other, “We should write a paper/book/something about church members who experience same-gender attraction. It needs to allow the reader to see the person, not the stigma. It needs to inspire love and understanding instead of judgment and fear.” But after discussing it for a little while we recognized that we weren’t the ones who could take this on. Because we’re both SSA, both married with children, both active members of the church, it seemed that we were too close to the issue to make a statement without seeming defensive. But we desperately wished for the statement to be voiced.

    When I learned of Ben’s project, first I cried, then I emailed him as fast as I could, hoping to help in some way. Then I called Jason and said, “You have to contact Ben–now!” And we talked about how we’d been waiting for this, how we hoped the message would be healing and hopeful, and at the same time just allow people in and out of the church to have a more inclusive view and understanding that there is not one “type” of gay Mormons. We come in all shapes and sizes, we have different opinions and beliefs, and not all of us are sad.

    I’m so glad this happened. I’m happy opening night went well and that Ben’s project (backed by his talent and hard work) were well-received. I’m hoping this will aid in efforts to build bridges and start conversations previously avoided. Naturally Jason and I believe we see our Heavenly Father’s hand in all of this–but that’s how we think. We’re sort of “superstitious like that. 🙂

    • kelly ann says:

      Samantha, thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective. I agree that this work was inspired. I felt the spirit in a way I never have before. Also, note I would love to hear more about your background if you want to comment further or even write a guest post.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    What an amazing review. I’d love to see this performance! Yet another reason that I wish I lived near Berkley. 🙂

    I have a few friends who are gay, and one who I think is still struggling to come out of the closet. It’s hard to see the church impact these people in such a tragic way.

    A woman close to me has recently disclosed to me that she is bisexual and I’ve learned a lot through hearing her perspective on love and long time commitment. Thankfully, she doesn’t feel pressure from the church in this way because she stopped going a few years ago. I try to support her as much as I can, acknowledging that society finds it more difficult to accept two women in a romantic relationship than a man and a woman in a romantic relationship.

    Thanks for this post!

    • kelly ann says:

      Thanks jessawhy. Funny enough sometimes I wish I lived near all the Arizona bloggers. I don’t know as many lesbian women as I do gay men, and agree it is hard particularly within the church. I hope your friend is able to navigate her experience smoothly.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    This review makes me so happy. Thanks for sharing it, Kelly Ann.

  8. Laura says:

    Do you know if there are plans to publish the script? Or write-ups of the interviews? I would love to read these perspectives.

  1. April 1, 2011

    […] overheard Kelly Ann speaking with the play’s designer and her assistant about the Mormon diction and phrasing, […]

  2. April 2, 2011

    […] Ben Abbott’s one-man play Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Question of Identity runs on the University of California Berkeley campus from March 31 to April 2. Abbott, a strait, faithful Mormon, based the play on a series of interviews he did with a wide range of gay Mormons. Theric Jepson at A Motley Vision did a series of posts about the play, making everyone wish they were in the Bay Area this weekend. Theric interviews Ben Abbott and discusses the play.  Theric on how the play’s use of insider Mormon language was not an obstacle for the non-Mormon audience. Theric interviews Ben and Barbara Abbott as part of his “Couples-Creators” series. They talk about meeting, Barbara’s conversion to Mormonism, and their artistic life. Barbara is a theater production designer. For a second positive opinion, here is a review by Kelly Ann at The Exponent. […]

  3. April 3, 2011

    […] interview that Ben did with a friend about his piece, linked to here – and a review of sorts, here, so now I have them for posterity. LikeBe the first to like this […]

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