By JENNIFER K. BAUER
Abbott is the writer and actor behind the one-man play “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity,” to be performed Aug. 12 and 13 at the Prichard Art Gallery in Moscow.
A straight, practicing Mormon, Abbott was working on a degree in theater and performance studies at University of California, Berkeley when voters passed Proposition 8, a controversial amendment to the state’s constitution that banned same-sex marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stood visibly in support of the amendment and Abbott says he found himself in an “uncomfortable position” as “an openly Mormon student with a huge percentage of gay friends.”
“An idea slowly evolved from this uncomfortable place in my life to take this idea and explore it,” says Abbott, 30, who began interviewing those at the eye of the storm: gay Mormons and their loved ones.
In the beginning, Abbott didn’t know anyone in this category. In the end he found more people than he could interview. He turned the interviews into a play where he is both the interviewer explaining his faith and his subjects whose words come from interview transcripts. The play won Producer’s Pick of the Fringe at the 2013 Cincinnati Fringe Festival and Best Social Commentary at the 2014 Frigid New York Fringe Festival.
Each individual’s story was unique but there were common themes, Abbott says. People talked to him about coming to terms with the fact they were different and gay and struggling with how to move forward knowing that. Some spoke of weighing which part of themselves to reject, their sexual attraction or personal faith. Others tried to overcome their sexuality and failed.
“Suicide came up with almost every single person I talked to,” Abbott says. While some subjects had considered suicide, others had friends who had chosen that route, he says.
“To hear stories of the thing I love almost most in the world, from the perspective of it causing other people real pain, was hugely difficult for me,” Abbott says of his faith. “It’s an important thing to me that people understand this is not a show that is in any way anti-Mormon. The truth is, if I heard the show was coming to town and heard the title, I would pass. I would assume it would be mean about my church. When you’re Mormon you get used to people being mean about your church. I wrote this show specifically because I’m a faithful Mormon. It’s not in any way anti-gay, at all. It’s not a religiousy play.”
If there is one message the play has it is that we have to move beyond an “us vs. them” debate, says Abbott, who has a discussion session after each show.
“Everyone in the play is straddling both things. This is something we are struggling with, something we have to move forward from. … I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘This could have been about my church,’ from someone who is Catholic, or Jewish, or Christian. They say, ‘I thought I was going to see a play about Mormons but this was about me, about us.’ ”
For Abbott, the first step in moving forward is being able to talk about the issue. There is no explicit material in his play and people have brought children as young as 8 or 9 to his shows, he says.
Abbott was raised in California and recently moved with his wife to Kaysville, Utah. His stop in Moscow is the second on a 20-city tour. He plans to eventually stage the play in Utah, the Latter-day Saints’ homeland.
“Utah is Broadway for this production,” Abbott says. “It’s the big time.”
If you go
What: “Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity”
When: 7 p.m., Aug. 12 and 13
Where: Prichard Art Gallery, 414 S. Main St., Moscow
Cost: $12 at the door or in advance at http://questions-in-moscow.brownpapertickets.com/
Bauer may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2263.