Church vs. Stage: Actors of Faith on Supporting Equal Rights

Playbill Pride   Church vs. Stage: Actors of Faith on Supporting Equal Rights
 
The Supreme Court's historic ruling on gay marriage June 26, 2015, left many members of the Broadway community singing its praises, including actors who attend religious worship services. Prior to the ruling Broadway veterans and newcomers had weighed in on being people of faith and their support for equal rights.
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Jessie Mueller Monica Simoes

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Clark in <i>Gigi</i>
Clark in Gigi Photo by Joan Marcus

Even when she's not onstage, Victoria Clark can still be heard singing. The Tony Award winner, most recently seen on Broadway in the musical Gigi, frequently takes the stage at a Methodist Church on the Upper West Side to perform for numerous fundraisers.

Clark has attended services at the church, a reconciling community, for "forever." The church encourages people to attend worship, regardless of their sexual orientation and has marched in the Gay Pride Parade for years. Clark supports equal rights for all and said it has never occurred to her that, as a Christian, she should not do so.

"It was never anything that I personally struggled with," Clark, who was raised in a Congregational church by very liberal parents, told Playbill.com. "To me, everybody's valuable, and everybody's the same."

Mueller in <i>Beautiful</i>
Mueller in Beautiful Photo by Joan Marcus

That sentiment was echoed by Jessie Mueller, who, in her acceptance speech at the 2014 Tony Awards, thanked God, saying, "Without him, nothing is impossible, and that is true and that will always be true."

"I think people should be allowed to love who they love," Mueller, who starred in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, told Playbill.com, adding that she thinks much of the opposition comes from a place of fear. "If people are respectful and pure in that love, they should not be judged for it. They should not be given any less credence or rights on the grounds of who they love."

The issue of religious communities supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians, has long been the subject of debate, with some people citing Bible verses that can be interpreted to condemn homosexuality. Following the Supreme Court's June 26 ruling that gay marriage is a federally mandated right, many religious communities voiced their opposition. But, Mueller said, the Bible verses people are citing are, in fact, translated by people.

"Yes, there are rules, stories, promises and wonderful things in the Bible," Mueller said. "But I take into consideration that they're coming through years of translation — a translation through humans. Some of my best friends are gay. Does the God I believe in love them? I believe he does. Does He judge them? I believe he does not. I believe Him to be a loving and inclusive God. I believe He made and loves all of us. And one of the greatest things we can do with that love is love one another."

Nichols recently starred as Sarah Brown in Goodspeed's <i>Guys and Dolls</i>
Nichols recently starred as Sarah Brown in Goodspeed's Guys and Dolls Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Manna Nichols, who will make her Broadway debut in George Takei's Allegiance, said she "100% supports [homosexuals] in being allowed the same constitutional rights as me or any other human being, solely because we are human beings living in the United States." She recalled how observing heterosexual relationships and marriages influenced her own opinions on equal rights. "I was born a heterosexual female and will probably never fully understand how my homosexual friends have felt throughout their lives," she said. "I think marriage is a big step in anyone's life, gay or straight, and deserves time and contemplation before taking one's vows before God and men. I think heterosexuals need to think long and hard about their personal lives and quality of marriages before throwing stones at homosexual relationships and marriages. I suppose my thoughts on this have developed more as I have seen good and bad marriages among my heterosexual friends, religious and non religious. It's made me think a lot about marriage in my own future and things I want to do and not do. Doesn't the Bible say to take the plank out of your own eye before taking the splinter out of your brother's? I suppose I'll try to focus on my own self-improvement before trying to condemn others."

Recalling a conversation with someone who opposes gay marriage, Nichols said she attempted to understand where the other point of view was coming from, explaining, "It was really a pretty calm conversation. I was more trying to understand where they were coming from than trying to point fingers and tell them they were wrong for having their own beliefs. Someone can't help if they feel conflicted in their soul against something. They can only control their words and actions and try to be loving and respectful to all people, regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, social status, amount of education, etc."

Kelli O'Hara in <i>The King and I</i>
Kelli O'Hara in The King and I Photo by Paul Kolnik

Tony Award winner Kelli O'Hara, currently starring in The King and I, witnessed a strong reaction to the subject when discussing it with her cousin, whom she described as "one of the best people I know." O'Hara, who said, "I don't see it as my choice or my decision to judge. It's not my life," said her cousin, who is a devoted Christian, held fast to the Bible as the two discussed the subject.

"She started to break down in a way I've never seen a human being," O'Hara said. "She couldn't get over it. And she started to say, 'I don't know. You're right. I don't know.' She had never thought about it. She had never been asked to think outside the box she was raised in. And she couldn't stop crying for the entire evening. We tried to go to dinner. She was apologizing. I was like, 'Oh my God, I want to change the subject now. Let's talk about some memories.' But she couldn't because I think something burst inside her."

"People are allowed to respectfully agree or disagree with you, and we must be okay with that and not let things escalate into hurtful and dangerous situations," Nichols said. "The rest of the country may not be as liberated as NYC, and we need to be thinking about how to safely negotiate these changes into society. Let's set an example for people living in cities that aren't as liberal or accepting as ours of how to learn to love each other and allow people to be themselves on both sides of the fence."

Calm conversation is something Mueller said she also supports. She hopes change will evolve from "one person respectfully starting a conversation with someone who has a different view. I believe we're all trying to live the best we can in this imperfect world, and we have more in common than we think. A conversation without the expectation of a certain outcome could be the beginning of a change."

Mueller, who described her evolving faith as "a conversation of sorts," said, "I believe faith is an ever-changing thing. As I've changed, my faith has changed. What I believe to be true has changed. There are less and less absolutes, it seems, in this physical world."

Along with change in dialogue, Clark's work to further social justice is an important aspect of her faith. "I constantly ask myself as an actor, 'Am I doing enough?'" she said. "That's one of my big faith struggles. How can I do more? I try to get like-minded folks in our business to come and reach out and do things for other people… I know the struggle isn't over yet by any stretch of the imagination. I think it's our job to continue to look for ways to push legislation and push our leaders. Our chance to be brave has to continue, and we have to keep working and fighting. Our job isn't really done."

Nichols, with Charlie Brady, in <i>Miss Saigon</i>
Nichols, with Charlie Brady, in Miss Saigon Photo by Bob Compton Photography

Along with continuing to work, Nichols said as time passes, her faith has evolved as well, and she hopes people of faith will live lives of worship and love.

"We live in different times and have different kinds of challenges today than we did during biblical times," Nichols said. "Despite these changes, I think the Bible was written as a moral and spiritual guide on how we should strive to live our lives even today, as Christ did: as servants to our brothers and doing everything in love. I think if we try to focus on that, a lot of the smaller disputes fall into place on their own."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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