Mormon actress balances faith, support for gays, and theatre in world premiere of Birds of a Feather
“I was meant to be a Mormon and I was meant to be in the theatre,” says actress Jjana Valentiner. “In the theatre, sexual orientation is a non-issue, so I find it strange when people won’t accept others for who they are.”
In an attempt to reconcile her personal beliefs with certain policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints this Washington, DC-based actress turned to theatre. “I view theatre in the same way I view church, as a place where all should feel welcome to come together to grapple with important issues and discover what unites us. Ultimately, we’re trying to figure out how to get along in a wonderfully large, complex family.” She is one of four actors starring in The Hub Theatre’s world premiere of Marc Acito’s Birds of a Feather, which tells the true story of the gay penguins in the Central Park Zoo, the chick they raised and the controversial children’s book they inspired. That book, And Tango Makes Three, has been among the American Library Association’s most challenged books in America four years in a row.
But it was the LDS Church’s backing of California’s Proposition 8, which eliminated marriage rights to same-sex couples, that prompted Valentiner, a devout practicing Mormon, to point out: “People who want to restrict LGBT rights—including some within the Mormon community—often paint a picture of gays as immoral and ill-suited to be parents,” Valentiner says, “But having been a persecuted people ourselves, we should never be the ones persecuting others.” She is one of a growing number of practicing Mormons calling for greater compassion and change within the faith.
The play, which was workshopped at Portland Center Stage’s JAW Playwrights’ Festival in 2009, is being performed in Fairfax, Virginia, which borders Loudoun County, where in 2007, school superintendent Eugene Hatrick succumbed to community pressure and pulled copies of And Tango Makes Three from the shelves of 16 public school libraries. Hub Theatre’s artistic director Helen Pafumi chose the play by award-winning author and NPR contributor Marc Acito in fulfillment of the theatre’s mission of being the hub in a wheel that connects varied—and opposing—viewpoints.
"Love is a rare bird,” Acito writes In Birds of a Feather, “…so if anyone is capable of toughing it out and raising their children without screwing them up too much - even if it's two gay penguins - shouldn't we be celebrating that achievement? Shouldn't we support them any way we can?”
The aptly named Valentiner agrees. “It baffles me that we continue to argue about this. I know the gay community, I embrace that community, and I’m a Mormon. When you love someone who is gay, it’s no longer about an ideological debate, it’s about families.”
Birds of a Feather, by Marc Acito and directed by Shirley Serotsky, continues at The Hub Theatre through August 7. For performance information or to buy tickets, visit www.thehubtheatre.org. Photo credit: C. Stanley