Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright

Note: On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was invited to Skype in and speak to Kylie Nielson Turley’s Mormon Literature class about Mormon Drama. As they had already read my historical overview in Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I decided to go more personal. This is what I came up with, followed by a wonderful Q&A session…what a sharp class! This was NOT meant to be a commentary on recent events in the Church, on either side. Correlations between the relationship between the LDS and LGBT communities addressed in the essay are purely coincidental, in regards to the current controversy, and were not intended to be construed as any public statement regarding it.

Farewell to Eden Cast
Me and the 2004 cast of Farewell to Eden

I was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April of 2004 for the national festival for the American College Theatre Festival. It was a time of personal celebration and accomplishment for me, I was so happy to be there, feeling so lucky and blessed—it was the last place I was expecting a figurative gut punch.

Due to the support and mentorship of my playwriting professor James Arrington, my play Farewell to Eden had received its premiere at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) that previous November, and then had been invited to KCACTF’s regional festival in California. The play really excited a lot of the judges and audiences there, despite being a relatively religious play performing before chiefly secular audiences. Although the production itself didn’t advance to the national festival, I was invited to attend to receive a couple of awards for the writing of the play.

At the National Festival, I attended a workshop with Oskar Eustis, a renowned director, dramaturg, and theatre artist. He was the Artistic Director who commissioned and directed Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America in its premier in San Francisco at the Mark Taper Forum. As the subject of his workshop, he discussed the process of developing Angels in America and working with Tony Kushner, which was all very fascinating. I found his thoughts on the interaction between politics and theatre particularly interesting, and was enjoying his dynamic and personable style of speaking. It was also very fun hearing how the development of such a dynamic, famous, and powerful play came about. Eustis’s personal anecdotes about working with Tony Kushner were really insightful into the creative process, not to mention quite funny. Like I said, I was happy to be there. Grateful, even. I felt like I was among like-minded people celebrating an art form I loved, and listening at the feet of those who had accomplished great things within that art form. I was laughing, I was listening, I was enjoying myself.

Then came that gut punch. Obviously, since Eustis was talking about Angels in America, it was a distinct possibility that Mormonism was going to come up. Anyone with any cursory awareness of the two plays knows that it heavily features Mormon characters in conflict with LGBT characters, and draws heavily upon Mormon iconography with much of its symbolism and thematic material. However, despite its often aggressive stance against Mormons, Kushner also allows for some sympathetic treatment of Mormon characters with the character of Hannah, a tough and insightful LDS matriarch within the play. So, as a Mormon playwright myself, I thought that if my faith community came up, it would probably come up in a balanced way, stating some of our general flaws as a community, but also recognizing that not all Mormons are uniform in their beliefs, and that Mormons should be treated with the nuance and respect that any population grouping deserves.

Mormonism did come up, but not with nuance, and not with an eye towards sympathetic characterization.
Eustis, taking the stance of an expert on Latter-day Saints, began talking in very broad and stereotypical terms about Mormons and polygamy, Mormons denying blacks the priesthood until the late 1970s, the scourge the Mormon community had been upon the LGBT community. This spurred a round of Mormon bashing among the group, including a particularly vociferous tirade by one professor which sounded akin to hate speech to my burning ears.

I wondered if I should raise my hand, if I should stand and be counted for my faith. I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps I didn’t want to rock the boat, to put on a persecution complex, to make it worse. Or perhaps I was ashamed. For a moment, it is very possible that I was ashamed of being a Mormon. I so wanted to be part of this community of artists, I was there to celebrate the things we had in common. Highlighting our differences in that moment seemed to defeat the whole purpose of why I was there. So I kept my mouth shut. I have often regretted that decision.

After the workshop, however, I was determined to introduce myself to Mr. Eustis. I approached him, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Mahonri Stewart. I’m a Mormon playwright.” Mr. Eustis went pale as his face fell and, to his credit, immediately started sputtering out an apology. He didn’t need me to remind him why his comments could be construed as offensive. I reassured him, saying everyone needs to get used to the people disagreeing with one’s self, but I asked him if he wanted to read a play from a Mormon playwright, hoping that he would be willing to better understand a member of the group he had so vilified.

Mr. Eustis looked around, making sure no one was observing us (which I understood—I’m sure lots of bright eyed, young playwrights try to hand him manuscripts), and nodded. So I took out a copy of Farewell to Eden that I had brought with me, and handed it to him. To his credit again, he took it. I don’t know whether he ever read it, but in that moment I at least felt listened to.

At a different workshop during the Festival, I sat myself next to the professor who had gone on the tirade against Mormons during the Angels in America workshop and started up a conversation. He was gregarious, pleasant, and intelligent, and we were having a wonderful conversation—until I let it slip that I was Mormon. He then stopped in the middle of our conversation, gave me one of the most withering stares I have ever received, and turned around, refusing to talk to me anymore. The complete contempt from a man who had just been pleasantly chatting with me seconds before stunned me. Only one thing had changed: he found out I was Mormon. Again, there was that burn of indignation that leapt alive within me—but also the burn of shame.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident in my life. During my grad school experience, there were times where fellow students would sometimes ask me the most outrageous questions, and one would use lines from Book of Mormon: The Musical to mock me, probably not quite realizing how offensive she was being, since I considered her a friend.

The department chair at that time pointedly made it clear that my plays had been rejected from consideration for the main stage season because they contained spiritual undertones. A play was chosen instead that was decidedly anti-religious in its message, so it wasn’t as if talking about religion was off the table altogether, as long as the play in question was pointedly negative in its treatment of faith. Another student, a friend of mine, and a fair minded secularist, confronted this department chair about the issue, saying, “Of course there are Mormon themes in his work. Mahonri’s a Mormon!” The only plain, and at least honest, reply this man had for my friend was, “I just have a weird kind of prejudice against Mormons.”

My name is Mahonri, I can’t escape my heritage, even if I wanted to. Whenever curious people ask me where the name comes from (and this happens with almost new person I get to know), I am pretty much forced to tell them it is the name of a prophet in the Book of Mormon. If the person isn’t Mormon, that moment that follows is almost always incredibly awkward. The person will often looked surprised (and usually not pleasant surprise), and then their eyes will glaze over, trying to hide the negative emotions they are suddenly feeling. Fortunately, if the person gets to know me better, they will ease up again and realize that I don’t really have horns hidden under my hair. Unfortunately, there are a few souls like that professor at the KCACTF festival, who never give me that chance, and never talk to me again.

Some will chalk this whole Mahonrilogue of mine to a persecution complex. Mormons apparently have those. Growing up on stories of how your ancestors who were kicked out of the U.S., forced to travel across the wilderness to the Utah Territory, and then have their Constitutional rights denied them even there, well, that will do that to a person. There is that lingering sense of rejection, despite all that our community has done to try to fit in since then, from abandoning polygamy in the 19th century, to finally making some needed traction on Civil Rights in the late 20th century.

Frankly, we do have some mistakes to account for. The persecuted turned around and became the persecutor in many instances. I do not for a moment condone any racism, sexism, or homophobia that exists in our cultural past or present. Moments like the Moutain Meadows Massacre; the former policy on race and the priesthood; the excommunication of intellectuals like the September Six, or Kate Kelly; or the Church’s involvement in Proposition 8; none of them are shining moments in the Church’s history that I am proud of.

However, that does not justify the hate I and other Mormons have experienced from others, just as our own prejudices are not justified when they are revealed. Maybe the adage of two wrongs don’t make a right is too trite here, but there must be something a Mormon can do to lessen the immediate animosity we experience from some folks, isn’t there?

For example, I don’t feel like I fit the stereotype so many people try to foist on me. I’m pretty moderate in my politics, a little left of center. I consider myself a feminist, and have been vocal in my support of feminist causes within my community, despite some push back in that regard. I deeply care about issues of race, gender identity, and sexuality. What makes me so offensive to those within my artistic community, beyond the fact that I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that The Book of Mormon is an actual spiritual record, that I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, and that I believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the Redeemer of my sins? I know many people think I’m kooky because of that, and if I didn’t have the experiences I have had, I would probably think somebody like me was a little bit nuts, too. But am I, and my fellow Mormons, dangerous? Should a secular person feel a moral obligation to immediately turn their back on us?

Thankfully, not all secularists think alike either. For every negative reaction I’ve had to my Mormonism, I’ve had a multitude of people show a much more generous and loving disposition. During my experience at KCACTF, I had a number of experiences with supportive voices within that theatre community to counteract the negative ones.

The playwriting chair for KCACTF at the time, Gary Garrison, was a professor at NYU, an accomplished playwright in his own right, and, incidentally, a gay man. He is currently the president of the Dramatists Guild (I keep forgetting to renew my membership! Sorry, Gary! Will get on that soon…). As a member of the LGBT community, Gary had every reason to resent Mormons like me. However, from the moment I met him, he welcomed me warmly, praised my play (calling it “the most intelligently written play I have read in a decade”), and made me feel like I belonged not only at the festival, but among the larger community of playwrights that he fosters. Among religious folk, we call his kind of attitude “charity,” the greatest of all virtues. Throughout the whole process, he championed me and my play.

I had a similar experience with the KCACTF artistic director Gregg Henry, who said Farewell to Eden was one of the best original plays he had seen. Gary and Gregg can’t know how much their kind, generous, supportive words sustained a fragile self-esteem, and provided a cloak to cover my times of self-loathing and personal doubt. For these men, whom I deeply admired and felt kinship with, to find worth in what I was doing, especially compared to the xenophobia others had shown to me, made an impact on me that I shall never forget.

During my grad school experience, I similarly had mentors and peers who became dear friends and supports in my work. Guillermo Reyes, is the playwriting chair at the grad school I went to. He is an accomplished playwright and memoirist who focuses his work on Latino and LGBT topics and he was extremely supportive of my interest in Mormon-themed work, considering it an important part of my identity and worldview. He still encourages me to expand a short play I started about Mormons and immigration issues, and even allowed me to structure a whole independent study class around my study of Mormon plays.

My TV writing and screenwriting professor, Philip Taylor, who wrote for classic shows like Mork and Mindy, The Incredible Hulk, and Highlander, helped me grow an interest in television writing and was vocally supportive when controversies around my work arose in the department. Very few men have had the immediate impact on my life that he did.

When the whole incident went down with our department chair, Jeff McMahon (who had helped me develop one of the plays that had caused a stir) directly went to bat for me, and voted for the play to be produced—despite Jeff having no religious inclination in his life at all, and it being an unpopular position. I can mention a number of other similar professors, like Gitta Honneger and Pamela Sterling, who supported me and my work, and helped me become a better theatre artist and writer. Not to mention, a better person. For every person in authority who seemed against me, there were 10 others who were helping me fight my battles.

And, of course, there were my fellow peers within the playwriting program—Alice Stanley, Kirt Shineman, Cody Goulder, Ryan Noble, John Perovich—who were fighting their own battles and making their own marks. Not only did they help me develop my work, and constructively improve it, but they were also dear, dear people in my life. We were friends, not rivals. There was none of that among these friends of mine. They were a true rope of support.

Back to my experience at the Kennedy Center. My assigned roommate for the Festival was Gregory Fletcher, a gay playwright whose beautiful play about a young man coming out to his sister, “Stairway to Heaven,” was being awarded the national award for 10 minute plays. Almost immediately, I took a liking to Greg. He was extremely intelligent, gracious, good-hearted, witty, and a wonderful conversationalist. We took it in stride that there was only one bed in the room for us to share, which could have been awkward if there were any misgivings on either of our parts, but we both tried to be very respectful of the shared space.

There were a couple of funny faux paux. When turning on the news, he paused and turned to ask me, “Can Mormons watch TV?” I laughed in reply, “Yeah, we’re not Amish.” In the course of one of our really interesting conversations, he found out I was a virgin at that time. Teasingly he joked, “I could take care of that for you, if you wanted” (at least I think he was teasing). I politely declined. And I’m pretty certain I had a number of awkward Mormon cultural moments in return.

We talked a lot about our backgrounds, about playwriting, about my Mormonism, about his homosexuality. He broadened my mind in ways I hadn’t considered about the LGBT lifestyle, and it seemed like I had a similar effect on him. “I always thought Mormons hated gays,” he said to me, “but you’ve convinced me otherwise. However, Baptists…” I shook my head inwardly to see one stereotype replaced with another, but I also knew from my conversations with him that Greg had some very raw experiences in the Baptist community which he was speaking from, so I didn’t comment further.

My conversations with Greg stuck with me, and I regretted not taking up his invitations to join him, and some of the other friends he made, when they went out for some drinks socially. I knew they were mainly hanging out at a bar, and I don’t drink, but I really do wish I had made more of an effort to continue my very welcome association with him and had just ordered a soda or something.
Instead, I found yet another web of support when I interacted with the students from BYU who had also been invited to the festival for acting and design honors. Meeting up with a BYU professor, the amazing Barta Heiner, we had a lot of fun together, and I felt they made a particular effort to include me among them, despite us being from different schools. I was honored and relieved not to be alone anymore. That Mormon faith connection was strong, and welcome.

However, when they asked me if I wanted to leave with them halfway through one of the plays we were watching together at the Festival, I hesitated. This was the musical that had beat my play for the National Playwriting Award (I was rewarded second place), so I didn’t want it to seem as if I had a case of sour grapes. But it was true that I was feeling a little battered and shell shocked by the content of the play, and a little resentful.

I went into the play excited. The other plays I had seen during the Festival had been excellent, so I assumed the same would be able to be said for that year’s big winner. But as the play dragged on, for the life of me, I was trying to figure out why it had won. The writing was very poor, the music was even more so, while the acting and production values were worse than many high school productions I had been to. Is this really what I had lost to? I was trying to be tolerant and open minded, but the content of the play was completely alienating. I wasn’t so worried about the LGBT content and sex content, even back then in my more conservative days I was pretty understanding of that, but I was mortified by a song that had joked about throwing Mormons and Christians “on the fire.”

Even then, I paused at my friends from BYU’s invitation to leave at intermission. Again, I didn’t want to be rude. But then I decided to go with them. I’m still not sure how I feel about my decision, but I certainly knew I enjoyed their kindness, fellowship, and support towards me that night.
When I came back to my room that night and talked to Gregory, I was relieved to find him as strongly upset about the play as I had been. He called the play “sophomoric” and was embarrassed that it had been chosen to be represented for the national festival. It reassured me to hear this from another source, and that I wasn’t just being jealous.

Which left me with a conundrum. Why had this other play been chosen to come to the festival and not mine? All of the judges at the regional festival had been ecstatic about the writing of Farewell to Eden, and were equally pleased with the acting and production values. The play had been “held over” for consideration for the national festival, and we had every reason to have our hopes up when we left the regional festival. When Gregg Henry called us with the news that I would be going to the festival, but not the production, he sounded almost apologetic. So what was going on here?

The only reason I could come up with, yet again, was that my play had Mormon characters and spiritual underpinnings. This other play that won, despite its writing flaws, was strongly political (during an election year), pushed boundaries, and was calculated in its offense. Was the matter, then, about the message of the play, not the skill and craft involved in creating it? Did it really come down to the fact that I was Mormon, and too proud to hide it? I refuse to believe that completely, to have such a cynical and simplistically defeatist view, but sometimes a gnawing doubt persists.

To be fair, one person in authority told me that it probably more came down to the fact that the playwright had also directed the play, acted in the lead, AND wrote it. So they were rewarding him for the effort he put in, basically, not the final script or production. If that was truly the case, I’m not sure if I find that reassuring. We had purposely not allowed me to audition for Farewell to Eden for fear of muffling the creative process involved in collaborative work, and wanted to give opportunities for multiple students in a college production. So I walked away from that conversation, hardly comforted.

However, even in that discouraging moment, I was surrounded by people at the festival who had supported me and my work. Gary Garrison, Gregg Henry, Gregory Fletcher, the students from BYU—they had all been a huge encouragement to a stranger in a strange land. Not to mention those back home in the cast and crew of Farewell to Eden, the director James Arrington, and my friends and family—they had all been a huge network of love, support, and encouragement that had made every shared success along the way possible. We had all done an amazing thing, together, even though I was the only person allowed to accept it in their names.

I believe it is vital that we find such support systems in our creative work. It’s important to meet other like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) individuals that will sustain us in our efforts, as well as give us constructive criticism in a sincere effort to make beautiful art and monuments, all the while fighting the urge to be clannish. I am not patient with an “Us vs. Them” mentality. It’s not Mormons vs. Gays, the religious vs. the secular, Zion vs. Babylon. Rather, there can be a true kinship and support.
There is a scripture in the Book of Mormon that I use all the time—my friends and family are probably sick of me quoting it—but I feel it is apropos here, as well. In 2 Nephi 26: 23-28 and 33, it says:
For behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness.
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.
Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.
Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.
For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.
I interpret this pretty plainly: we are all beloved of God, so we should all love each other. We should find ways to include, not exclude. We should find more connections, less disconnections. We have all felt alienated, and we have all caused alienation to descend on another person. We all need forgiveness, we all need to forgive. We are all part of imperfect institutions that have instilled both shame and support into its members. May Grace touch me, may it touch you, may it touch us all.


  1. Good for you, Mahonri! You always take adversity with a heaping of reflection. I admire how you defend your beliefs appropriately. Miss you and hope you're well! :)