Theatre of the Beat in Stouffville, Ont., is taking on same-sex sexuality and gender within Mennonite Church Canada in a new play written by artistic director Johnny Wideman.
“We would hear, ‘Oh, if you guys tackle social justice issues, would you ever talk about the conflict of sexuality in the church?’ ” Wideman said. “We heard that time after time after time.”
It felt like the natural next step for the theater, which tours in Mennonite communities and deals with Mennonite themes.
The play, This Will Lead to Dancing, follows two teens from a Mennonite congregation’s youth group who go on a hunger strike until their church decides to accept LGBT people as members. In her hunger, one of the girls begins to hallucinate the ghost of Menno Simons, who becomes a central character.
“Menno, who has never even heard of the concept of homosexuality or nonbinary gender identity, becomes in a way the voice of the church trying to wrestle with the Word and speak in exegesis,” Wideman said.
The play, written to take place in a sanctuary, began its first tour on Sept. 18. Despite funding challenges and some difficulty finding host churches, Wideman hopes the play can help Mennonites see an important conversation in new ways.
Lead to dancing
Wideman doesn’t consider himself officially Mennonite, but he attended Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, where he met his wife, a Mennonite. They attend Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville.
“The community there is really, really engaged whole-heartedly in the Being a Faithful Church process,” Wideman said. Being a Faithful Church is an MC Canada process that began in 2009 to help congregations discern God’s will, including in regard to sexuality, through scriptural study.
He said “forbearance” is a word that comes up a lot in the Canadian discussion. He wanted his play to represent those who, he believes, have shown the most forbearance.
“We really haven’t heard much from the queer community or from the allies within the Mennonite church,” Wideman said. “I wanted this play to, in a way, be that voice.”
So he conducted hours-long, one-on-one interviews with four LGBT Mennonites and two allies who work within the community and encounter many personal stories. He incorporated some of their reflections and stories.
He also read many books and articles on the topic. Lines from Jeff Gundy’s poem “The Cookie Jar” appear in the play. Chris Glasser’s prayer, “Coming Out to God,” heavily inspired his theme.
“Glasser describes this awkward dance between sexuality and spirituality,” he said. “For some reason we don’t know how these two forms of ourselves that make us human coexist.”
The play’s name references the old adage that sex standing up is a sin because it might lead to dancing — which Wideman thinks embodies that same tension of spirituality and sexuality.
In a Mennonite church
The play’s director, Erin Brandenburg, grew up in the Mennonite community, Harrow, Ont.
“I have a familiarity with small towns and Mennonite churches and I guess sort of the confusing complexities and relationships that are part of that,” Brandenburg said.
She was drawn to the project in part because of its grappling with weighty issues as well as the play’s site-responsiveness. The set and layout will change depending on the church building.
“I’m very specifically making choices because this is a Mennonite audience in a Mennonite church,” she said.
She will use the actual physical elements of the church in the show as part of the performance.
“We are basically asking the churches that we perform the show in to give us their house,” she said. “We’re not actively changing the space in a physical sense, we’re sort of changing it in the way you see people in your space.”
‘This is our story’
Alissa Bender attended the show on Sept. 19 hosted by Sterling Avenue Church in Kitchener.
“It was just very obvious that they were reminding us that this is our story,” she said.
She was struck by the tension evident around sexuality and spirituality in the church. One of the characters hides under a quilt, for example.
“She’s escaping from the church, but it’s also where she finds refuge,” she said.
Bender is the pastor of Hamilton Mennonite Church and drove an hour to attend.
She said one thing her congregation has hoped for that the Being a Faithful Church process has yet to include is personal stories.
“This show really highlights those,” she said. There’s a character who is a lesbian.
“That’s the person that we’re talking about and not always talking with,” she said.
While most Theatre of the Beat plays have been sponsored by Mennonite institutions, Wideman said this one was not.
“Even throughout the writing process, we couldn’t get any official kind of Mennonite church support for the writing of it because it’s . . . a lightning rod,” he said. They raised enough to create the show through donations.
They decided the show should be free to host during the initial run. They won’t sell tickets to the show, but ask for donations at the entrance.
“All we ask is that [the hosts] help to promote it and make trays of cookies both for during the show and for afterwards,” he said.
It’s a fairly large project that has some “pretty cool tech stuff in it,” Wideman said, noting it won’t be cheap to sustain.
“There’s a chance that we could really lose money on this, which is scary,” he said. “But it’s that important to us that I am willing to lose money on this so that we get to do honest work that we’re passionate about.”
The play is his way of being active about the problems he sees in the church.
“I guess I see theater as one of the prophecies,” he said. He hopes the play will help people talk to each other gracefully about these often-avoided topics.
“My hope is that as we have struck the set and are cleaning up, there are still groups of people from different backgrounds hanging out and eating cookies, listening to each other and really honestly wrestling with what they believe and why.”
For information on the show’s tour, visit theatreofthebeat.ca.