I got a press release yesterday about the brand-new Mormon Playwrights reading series, created by Mormon Redneck Productions to "explore the stories of mainstream Mormonism through published plays by established Mormon storytellers."

Founded in 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the first truly American church that now has a worldwide congregation of over 15 million. The last decade has seen tremendous growth and members, often referred to as Mormons, have been in the news all over the world. However, their stories are, for the most part, told by those outside of the church. On stage, Mormon characters are few and far between, despite their central importance in settling the American West. Outside observers have created shows satirizing them and holding them up for criticism. But, what about the stories told by those who are of the faith? What are their stories like?

Yesterday was also, of course, the day that the Supreme Court put a halt to gay marriages in Utah, at the state's request —Utah's population, not coincidentally, is 62% Mormon, and the Church officially opposes gay marriage. So it's particularly interesting that the first show in the Mormon Playwrights series deals directly with the relationship between Mormonism and homosexuality:

"Playwright Carol Lynn Pearson writes from personal experience as a devout Mormon whose equally pious husband left after 12 years to pursue his life as a gay man... Over an open grave in a Salt Lake City cemetery, parents Ruth and Alex struggle internally and against one another to absorb the suicide of their 24-year old son, who had finally come to terms with his sexuality and entered into a seemingly happy relationship. Pearson's personal understanding of spiritual crisis keeps Ruth's hard-line attitude from becoming alienating, while Alex's growing doubts about his strict religiosity never become too lofty. Into a mix of guilt and blame comes Marcus, the partner of the dead son, who provides some long sought answers for the grieving parents."

The second show in the series is a less-timely look at the early days of Mormonism: Hancock County is set in Missouri immediately after OG prophet Joseph Smith was shot to death, and describes how the Mormons came to settle in Utah.

I just finished reading The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall's great novel about a well-meaning polygamist trying to juggle the needs of four wives, three houses, and an ungodly number of children. David Ebershoff's novel The 19th Wife effectively uses a modern-day polygamist compound (of the sort the Church of Latter Day Saints officially disavows, as it does all "plural marriage") as a starting point to investigate the roots of Mormonism. Last year, I found much to like about the Portland-made film The Fall: Testament of Love, about two gay Mormon missionaries struggling to navigate their feelings for each other. And, of course, the wonderful Book of Mormon (which will be back in Portland this summer, btw) poked gentle fun at LDS without doing too much damage. The Mormon Church is weird, and there is absolutely no denying that there are plenty of fascinating stories to be told by and about people who grew up in the church. It also, of course, has a history of racism and is currently actively opposing gay marriage in Utah. So it's up to you, I suppose, to decide whether attending Mormon-produced, Mormon-written theater feels like an endorsement of a bigoted institution, or a chance to better understand a hugely influential (and crazy-fascinating) American religious and cultural force.

Facing East runs Feb 12 & 14, Hancock County is Feb 13 & 15, both at 7:30 pm at Ekko Studios at 828 NW 19th.