Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett on his new play ART & CLASS
In my new play, Art & Class, teacher Lucía Mendoza-Horne fights for her job and reputation after she’s accused of showing “pornography” to her sixth-grade art students by a white conservative parent. In a whirlwind of negotiation, her friend—and principal—shares how he understands what it means to be treated like an outsider:
…you may not appreciate me analogizing, but I understand some of your feelings. The ones we dance around. Once upon a time, I felt like an outsider too. On my mission, in Brazil, I got reassigned because some confusion arose between my companion and I, we had grown very close, very cordial, out of loneliness, and admiration. Our mission president found out, we dealt with it, but I became the odd man out….
Dr. Leland Hess is not coming out to Lucía in this pivotal moment in their friendship. If anything, he’s trying to commiserate while subconsciously fishing for validation. Leland is married to a woman and expecting his fifth child. On the character page, I describe Leland as follows: “Early to Mid 40s. A white middle-school principal. A liberal LDS man who does not fit the molds on offer. Smarter than everyone around him except Lucía. He longs for a different life.”
I wrote Leland, in part, as an ode to LDS men from Utah who come so close to breaking free from cis-heteronormativity—and can even articulate critiques of it—but don’t quite succeed. He’s the sort of guy that macho straight guys (like Lucía’s husband), assume are gay for surface reasons.
I purposely left the question of Leland’s orientation unanswered. I wanted the director and actors to grapple with it. Art & Class is a piece in which racial and socioeconomic dynamics are heavily in play. Leland is ostensibly white, straight, rich, and religious. He holds a position of power. But he lets himself be pushed around by his supervisors. His LDS ward gossips about him. He ditches church to see movies with Lucía. His paychecks cover less than his wife wants them to. In a moment calling for professionalism with a friend, he tries to leverage her with a personal secret. I wanted this moment—this strange show of vulnerability—to be in the play because big secrets make us dangerous in the context of power games. They especially make us dangerous when we find others unwilling to validate us. Lucía is a woman who would, ordinarily, accept Leland as a gay man or bisexual man, but here he’s using his secret to downplay the racism she’s experiencing, and she knows it. Or at least that’s how it feels to Lucía in that moment.
A bisexual friend of mine once told me that when she came out to her book-religion mother, her mom wished that my friend was “just gay.” For whatever reason, it bothered the mother more that my friend was bi and not gay. Obviously, her mother would have preferred her to be straight, but let her know aloud that the order of acceptance went as follows: straight, gay, bisexual. Wherever the character Leland in Art & Class actually locates himself on the spectrum of orientation—if he can locate himself—he has internalized that same order of acceptance. He’s internalized an order that’s not even an order, really, because LDS orthodoxy quibbles with the categories themselves. The notion of loose/evolving orientation is even more unthinkable.
Outside the fiction of Art & Class, I have hope for men like Leland. I’m old enough to recall a time when liberals skewered bisexuality on TV. Remember Phoebe, from Friends, singing, “Sometimes men love women, and sometimes men love men, and then there are bisexuals, though some just say they’re kidding themselves”? She said “some just say,” but the audience laughed. Or else the editor added a canned laughter track. How far we’ve come.