In Mormon culture, we feel tremendous social pressure to conform. We all want to appear as though everything’s just fine, our kids moving without difficulty down the Eagle Scout/Young Women’s Medallion/mission/temple marriage path. Our own marriages are happy and mutually sustaining, we have callings in the Church that we fulfill without crisis or incident. Everything’s fine. And it’s embarrassing when we have to admit that something isn’t fine.
But the really interesting conversations are the ones we have with friends in the Church or with family members when everything isn’t fine. My oldest son didn’t go on a mission, and although we knew he wasn’t going to go, it took my wife and I a long time to admit it to anyone. We’d stall; we’d make excuses. “He’s still saving up money,” we’d say. Our second child, our oldest daughter, married someone who wasn’t Mormon. Again, it was embarrassing, and we had to steel ourselves to tell family members. My wife has a sister whose family is perfect, and we worried about how to tell her about our daughter. We went to see her, and she greeted us with a bombshell. Her oldest son had come out. He was gay. A much bigger crisis for active Mormons.
I began writing the play I now call BORDERLANDS in 2005. I open the old file in my computer, and see an unwieldy play, a play much longer than it is now, after multiple drafts. But the name on that file is not Eric Samuelsen. It’s a pseudonym: Roy Thorne – my father’s first name and my mother’s maiden name. BORDERLANDS is a deeply personal play, a play about uncertainty and ambivalence in Mormon culture – a culture where nothing is prized more than certainty. It’s a play I loved. And it’s a play I was unwilling to claim.
I am a Mormon. I am an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism is my spiritual home. I love Mormon scripture, love the Mormon narrative. And I’m also employed by the Church. I teach at Brigham Young University – I’m paid, in part, with tithing dollars. But at times, I find myself at odds with Mormon culture. I’m politically liberal – most Mormons, at least in the Western United States, tend to be conservatives. I write plays, and while many of my plays are set in my own culture, and have been embraced by some of my friends in the Church, I can’t limit myself to a kind of writing defined by what seems to me a complacent and unchallenging Mormon aesthetic.
I also recognize that Mormonism, though it works for me, doesn’t work for everyone. Sunstone Magazine has a column called Borderlands. My play intends to honor those who live in the margins, those for whom Mormonism exists as a liminal state. I wanted to honor my borderland friends, to tell their story with compassion and accuracy. I don’t want to judge; I want to describe.
I’m also a straight, married Mormon guy. And yet I’ve spent my life working in the theatre. And my father is an opera singer, and I grew up with opera people. Many of my closest friends are gay. Many of the students I have grown closest to over the years were either gay while at BYU, or came out after graduating. I’ve tried to be a friend to LDS gay students, who in past years were treated abominably. I’ve tried to work within the system, to quietly influence attitudes and policies. Things have improved in recent years. But it’s not possible to write about borderland Mormons and not include a gay character.
So I wrote a play about coming out, just not in the usual sense – in fact, in BORDERLANDS, the one gay character is already out. It’s a play 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. It’s a play about moments of unanticipated honesty, and the revelations that result. And it’s a play about the hard work of carving out a social space for those for whom none exists in our culture.
So the characters in this play sit in an honesty car, and tell the truth about what liars they are. Because they’re Mormons, they’re much harsher in their self-judgments than they really need to be. And that pressure to conform blinds them to people who really are genuinely suffering. Finally, one young man finds a way to actually be what the other characters profess to be. A Christian, in the profoundest sense of the word.
BORDERLANDS is about coming out – stepping forward, admitting who you are, telling the uncomfortable. Roy Thorne was a name born of fear. Eric Samuelsen refuses to be afraid any longer.
Plan-B Theatre Company presents
the world premiere of BORDERLANDS
March 31-April 10, 2011
Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner
Thursday-Friday at 8pm | Saturday at 4pm and 8pm | Sunday at 2pm
Tickets $20 ($10 students) here or 801.355.ARTS
Eric Samuelsen’s most personal play explores the process of coming out in Mormon culture – just not in the usual sense – as Dave (Kirt Bateman), his sister Phyllis (Teri Cowan), the woman he’d like to date (Gail, played by Stephanie Howell) and her gay nephew Brian (Topher Rasmussen) journey into unexpected honesty. Directed by Jerry Rapier.