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.”