Drawn to the theater from an early age, Benjamin Benne only started writing plays at 25, just under a decade ago.
“The reason for that was my father passed away when I was 25,” the playwright recalls. “I was having to confront questions of existence and mortality so directly. That was the moment where, within the span of a year, three plays poured out of me that were all about what is my relationship to death? What is my relationship to those that have passed? How do we continue to commune and have a relationship with people once they’re no longer with us in the bodily sense? And where do we go, and how do we continue to leave a mark in time and space?”
Suddenly, says Benne, “everything just cracked open for me in such a major way. And the only outlet that I could really think of to pour everything that I was thinking about was into plays and characters, and being able to distance them just far enough from myself, in some cases very far from myself, in order to have those conversations with myself, because I just didn’t know who else I could have those conversations with.”
He found someone to share those conversations with — theater artists and companies, and audiences, who have helped turn the recent graduate of the David Geffen/Yale School of Drama MFA Playwriting program into one of the country’s hottest, up-and-coming playwrights. His play Alma, an award-winning drama about an immigrant mother and her child who is a U.S. citizen, is set for four productions over the next year.
And his arresting interracial, inter-faith gay romance In His Hands just opened in a world-premiere production, directed by José Carrasquillo, at Mosaic Theater. Engaging in this touching and sexy pas de deux, Michael J. Mainwaring and Josh Adams star as Daniel, an aspiring Lutheran pastor, and Christian, who harbors deep trauma related to his strict religious upbringing.
Raised by immigrant parents in L.A. County, Benne grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment. “Growing up in a religious sphere, I was always asking very existential questions,” he says. “Especially as a queer person in that space where I couldn’t take anything for granted and was sort of constantly feeling at odds with things around me, and constantly feeling out of place, that I could never be comfortable. I don’t remember being comfortable as a child.”
As an adult, Benne has grown more comfortable reconciling his past experiences with his present-day feelings about God and spirituality and romantic relationships, and examining those subjects in his work. In His Hands was inspired partly by his personal journey of coming to terms with religion.
“Part of that process was culling my own experiences as a person within that space, talking to a lot of the queer people who were around me, and being like, ‘What is your relationship to faith, and what has been your history with religious institutions? And how does that feel different than your individual spiritual practice now, if you have one? Or, do you continue to belong to a religious institution, and how is that possible, what makes that possible?’
“Because it certainly wasn’t for me, or it certainly didn’t feel that way. And I was very afraid of what the repercussions would be if I did come out in a space where it was clear that was going to be unacceptable. And so that also got me interested in researching conversion therapy, and what was the worst-case scenario for potentially what could have happened to me if I had come out in that space.”
Noting the influence on his play of Garrard Conley’s harrowing conversion therapy memoir Boy Erased, Benne also sought advice from a source more joyfully connected to his faith.
“I was introduced to a friend of a friend who went to Yale Divinity, before I went to Yale, and he was an openly gay Lutheran pastor,” Benne recalls. “I had a series of conversations with him, where he basically let me ask all my questions that I had about faith and his denomination, and what made it possible for him to feel a sense of harmony between his sexual identity and his religious identity.
“I was asking a lot of questions genuinely for myself and for my own curiosity, but I also was like, ‘Hey, this might end up in a play. So is that cool? I will absolutely credit you if that happens.’ So shout out to Pastor Peter.”
Through Daniel and Christian’s fraught courtship, In His Hands asks profound questions about faith, acceptance, and love.
“That’s definitely the type of theater I want to see more of,” says Benne. “There’s such a lack of stories that are actually about love and how people learn to love each other…. I know what the problems are, right? I understand violence in the world. I see it around me every single day. You don’t need to tell me more about violence, I understand violence.
“What I don’t think I see enough of is healthy models for how do we move closer to each other and take care of each other better. That is something that I don’t think I see enough of. Show me more examples of how we love each other better.”
METRO WEEKLY: Congrats on the play, which I enjoyed. Opening night must be stressful for everybody, especially these days. Do you have any rituals or superstitions to see you through the stresses of opening?
BENJAMIN BENNE: [Laughs.] That’s a great question. To be honest, today’s our official opening and I just have a busy day, right? We have this interview today, I’m running over to Studio right after this to chat with their literary manager there. I have to come back, I have to pack everything, because I leave tomorrow to go back to Connecticut. And when I go back to Connecticut, I have to pack all my stuff there, because I’m moving back West now that I’ve finished grad school.
I’ve been so immersed in work the last few days with previews and trying to get all my notes turned in for what we’re watching, and also spending time with the collaborators before I leave. That feels like an important part of what I’m here to do, too, is not just be in the room and work with people professionally, but begin to build relationships personally with people, because a lot of these are collaborators that I think I want to work with again. So it’s, how do we keep maintaining a sense of relationship that isn’t just about, “What did you think of this light cue?” But going out after and being, “Where are you in your life right now? What are you thinking about?”
MW: My very next question was about the trust that’s required, the playwright trusting the actors, the actors trusting the text, everybody trusting the director. Where does the trust-building process start for you? And I’m hearing that it’s important to maintain it.
BENNE: It is, yeah. I mean, I think the last few years I’ve been working a lot with my peers in grad school. And I think because we have the opportunity to keep working with each other and we’re in such close proximity all the time, there’s a lot of opportunity to build rapport, and build a sense of, “Do we have a shared vocabulary?” Because I think even if I’ve found that I can get on the same page with a collaborator, sometimes the labor that’s involved to get on the same page doesn’t feel worth it, when I meet another collaborator who I don’t even have to say anything, and the images that they’re saying to me are exactly what I’m seeing in my head. Which is kind of the relationship that I’ve had with José [Carrasquillo]. So that’s been a really wonderful discovery, because this is my first time working with him.
But I think what I loved about working with him specifically as a director is we started conversations a year ago about casting. And I didn’t know any actors in the D.C. area, so I was really relying on him to lead the conversation about who feels the right fit for these roles. So there, I just had to trust, because I didn’t have anything really to go off of other than when he would start to throw names in my direction. I did know a few people who had had shows in D.C., and was able to be like, “Hey, do you know this person?” And, fortunately, I did have a playwright friend go like, “Oh, the person he wants was in my show when I was in D.C., and is an amazing actor.”
So, I think a lot of it is listening and getting information, and then comparing notes with other relationships that I have to be like, “What can you tell me about X, Y, Z?” And then I think, once we started conversations a year ago, he just continued to send me things, occasionally just seemingly out of the blue, he would send me an email and be like, “I saw this video of this movement. And it’s something that made me think of your play and what I would like to do with it.”
So I think the fact that he just was very transparent and very invested in the storytelling of this play, and it was clearly on his mind a lot, I think, gave me a lot of confidence that I was like, “I think this is somebody who’s going to take really good care of this text.” And every time he sent me something, I would get excited, which isn’t always the case. Sometimes people will send me things that are like, “I’m thinking this for your play.” And I’m like, “No.”
MW: Do you ever say that?
BENNE: I say it as gently as possible. Sometimes it is a straight-up, “This is not going to work.” I feel like there have been moments where a director has offered something that has made me go, “That is actually changing the storytelling in a way that feels like it’s compromising something that I have very intentionally put in place.” And that feels like a no-go for me.
But I think there are other opportunities where it’s sort of, “I’m not sure about it, it’s something we should keep talking about.” I believe that in every collaborative relationship, it’s just important that communication be really worked at, because even if I disagree with the choice that gets made, or don’t necessarily understand the choice in the beginning, I feel the more that we talk about it, as long as I understand the intention behind it and the other person can articulate that to me and I can at least be like, “Okay, I see why we’re making the choice. I don’t necessarily like the choice or agree with it, but I understand why.” For me, sometimes that’s good enough. Sometimes I just have to be like, “Okay, I understand why we’re doing it, and that’s important to me.” But I think when people make decisions and aren’t willing to explain why, that’s sort of, “Okay, I don’t think we’re a good fit, because I think I need to at least understand why we’re making choices if I’m going to have my name on it too.”
MW: What inspired In His Hands?
BENNE: The simplest answer is that all my work comes from a really personal place. Some of the plays are things that I start writing and I don’t really understand what I’m writing until much later in the process. And then there are some plays where I’m like, I know what I’m writing. I think In His Hands was one of those.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, and was in a space where it was preached that if you were homosexual that you were going to hell. And I knew I was queer from a really young age, and always just held a lot of guilt around that and a lot of shame and never came out.
Eventually I left that religious institution at the age of twenty, and started to immerse myself in the space of art-making, and felt I was in a much safer space to express myself more fully. A decade after that, when I was nearing 30, I started to return to questions of what is my relationship to faith? Do I still identify as a Christian? Which, now, I think I feel much more secure in saying, yes, I do. However, I think my understanding of God is something very different than what I was taught. So that was a long journey of learning. And so much of, I think, that journey of coming back to my relationship to faith, and how do I find a sense of harmony between the fullness of my identity along with spiritual identity in a relationship to God, was very much the journey of writing this play.
MW: Have you had a romantic relationship that was challenged by differences in faith?
BENNE: I think challenging in the sense that it was not part of the relationship at all. I think the more that I have gotten to explore relationships with others within a romantic context, the more I’ve found that I really want spiritual connection with someone, and I want spirituality to be something that we share — not necessarily exactly the same, but I think the most exciting relationships for me have been when we’ve been able to talk about “What is God? What is our place in the cosmos? How close to nihilism do we get with our beliefs? How we are part of something so big and intricate that we can’t even understand it, but is incredibly vital?”
Being able to freely speak with someone about the spectrum of our existence is something that feels really inspiring for me and nurturing in a way that very few other conversations make me feel. So, I think I’ve found that the more that is present and something that is able to be spoken about, I think the more fulfilled I feel within relationships in general, but certainly I think within a romantic context too.
MW: Speaking of context, do you identify as LGBTQ?
BENNE: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely queer in many senses of the word, definitely a very femme male, who’s attracted to people of the same sex, and also constantly since I was young, feeling very at odds with what felt normative. I just found that I was just interested in very different things than what I was told that men should be interested in. So yeah, definitely queer.
MW: Something really fun that comes up is this idea that people yelling “Oh, God” during sex is totally normal, but naming a more specific deity sounds weird. This is a question of, do sex and religion go together, or is that just an immediate turn-off, if somebody’s going to bring Jesus into the room that way?
BENNE: So I think, yes. I think so many of the images of religion that we see are incredibly erotic. Like Jesus on the cross. He’s nude and it’s a very sexual image, and yet it’s so taboo within the religious sphere to acknowledge that and be like, “Okay, so this is a really sexual image, right?”
We get on our knees to pray, another image that I’m playing with in the play. We also get on our knees to give a blowjob. And there’s a sense of ecstasy that I think gets associated with divine connection. Also we experience ecstasy bodily in sexual encounters.
So I think there is a relationship between those two things, it just gets treated as taboo on both ends of the spectrum. If you’re within a much more progressive circle that is much more sexually liberated, and just more comfortable with sexuality, somehow religious contexts become really taboo within that space. Or at least I have found that when I talk about faith, suddenly people feel like I’m trying to preach to them or do something.
And even if I’m absolutely not trying to do that, which I think also comes up in the play for sure, then certainly, on the other end of the spectrum, sexuality is something that is constantly getting policed within religious sects, even within ones that like to think of themselves as progressive, like the Lutheran denomination. I felt like bringing those two things that actually are really connected, but get treated as if they’re taboo, depending on which circle you’re in, was something that I just was really excited by and something that I just wanted to be like, “There is an intersection here that we just rarely get to talk about.” And I was really excited about getting to explore the territory in between, and bridging those two things that get treated like they are in opposition to one another, when I’m like, “I think they’re actually very much in conversation and dancing with each other, if we just let them.”
MW: You bring up an interesting paradox, that really the most liberal person can still be very rigidly anti- talking about religion. Those liberal doors shut when spiritual stuff comes up. Has that been a lot of your personal experience, especially in a university environment?
BENNE: Absolutely. I have found, at least for me — and this may be a projection on my part — but I have felt really uncomfortable talking about my religious identity within my artistic circles. And I think part of that is that so many of us who have had religious upbringing tend to associate it with judgment. That judgment is such a major component of religious upbringing, that there are things that you do, and there are things you don’t do. And there tends to be a really rigid binary that gets introduced within a religious sphere, whereas I feel in more progressive, liberal circles, it’s “No judgment. We do not judge.”
So the minute that something that I think gets associated so specifically with judgment gets introduced within that sphere, it’s like, “No, I see what you’re doing. You’re about to become really judgy.” And it’s like, really? I’m just saying this is true for me, I am not putting this on anybody else. But it does feel really vulnerable to say, “I’m a Christian,” and it does feel really vulnerable to say, “God is important to me. And I want it to be more important to me.” And within the educational sphere, I think writing this play and getting to do it at Yale was really exciting.
I had some people come up to me who were like, “Wow, it’s really cool that you preach the gospel in your play.” And I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even realize, necessarily. That was not an intention of mine, but yeah, you’re right.” I guess inherently by putting information about Jesus in the play, people would get exposed to the gospel if that is something they have not been familiar with.
And then on the other end of the spectrum, some people were like, “I loved getting to see sex on stage like that.” And that was also something that was surprising to me. Because I think what was illuminated was that a lot of stories that have sex and have a component of violence in them tend to have that as the crux of the play, the intersection between sex and violence. And so many of the sex scenes in this play are about expressions of love and vulnerability and don’t have a violent component as part of them.
I think there’s certainly a sense of danger to them, a sense that they’re risking something by engaging with each other this way. And certainly, for Daniel, it’s like, “I’m going into brand new territory sexually with this partner.” But yeah, I hadn’t thought about how that it’s rare to see sex depicted in a way where it is actually a manifestation of love and care and extension onstage.
MW: They cuddle.
BENNE: I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen people cuddle onstage. But I also wasn’t thinking about that when I was writing the play. I was just thinking about what are the markers in a relationship? What are the firsts that happen? So especially around touch — touch was such a major thing that I was exploring with this play — and just the multiplicity of touch, how the same gesture, depending on the context could mean something totally different and be charged in a completely different way.
MW: In the play, they address this age-old debate of whether oral sex is more or less intimate than anal. That’s something I think personally that people need to experience both to really be able to decide.
MW: Do you have a personal opinion in that debate? I mean, that doesn’t have to come with confessions.
BENNE: Sure. You know what, I think for me it was less about preference and more about what it means to different people, and how different organs get charged depending on who you are as a person.
I think for a lot of people, my big question is like, why is one considered the more typical first experience than the other? I think for me it was, why is it that one is treated as if it’s lesser than the other or not as serious as the other, even though there’s still risk attached to both of them, there is incredible intimacy to be gained with both of them.
So for me, it was like, why is there a hierarchy here, in terms of what feels like a more legitimate sexual experience or a more profound sexual experience? I think that was at the crux of the question for me there. And sadly, I feel it’s just become more — or maybe it’s just the people I’m around — but I feel now it’s more accepted that oral sex is sex, and for some people who are queer, maybe anal sex isn’t even the goal. Maybe oral is enough, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are so many different ways to have sex and to have sexual gratification that why does it even have to be limited to oral and anal? So I think for me, it was more about the hierarchy of the thing, and how one seems like it gets treated as more implicitly serious than the other.
MW: For me, it brought up questions around penetration, which I think people’s feelings about are always affected by sexism and homophobia. This whole conversation is something queer people talk about, but that we don’t see onstage. You’ve mentioned before bringing up conversations that we don’t often hear onstage, but that you know people are having. How do you go into broaching those topics, and what is it you want to do by bringing them up?
BENNE: Something that I was taught early on that resonated really deeply for me is that if I was going to be an artist, I had to tell the truth and be as honest as possible. And I think that means sometimes writing things that can feel deeply uncomfortable. And I think something that I’ve done in a lot of my work is write scenes that are between two people, because I think it does allow for that honesty that I’m after, and a sense of vulnerability between two people that I think we’re able to share our deepest thoughts and feelings when we’re — for me, especially as an introvert — when I’m one-on-one with someone, that is when it comes out.
And so I think a lot of what I’m interested in doing onstage is allowing for that intimacy, portraying relationships that allow for that sense of the familiar, but also have a deep sense of intimacy and also incredible specificity so that they feel odd in terms of characters that we see onstage.
And yet I think if we met Christian or Daniel in reality, they would be as complex as anyone else that we know. And as full of contradiction, which is also a major goal of mine. I think my characters want to be as complicated as possible. And I think what that does is allow them to have really frank, really uncomfortable conversations as characters. It’s my goal to put that onstage and in front of people. And hopefully it takes away a little bit of the taboo around having these conversations a little more openly.
I thought something that was really interesting was growing up in L.A., the circle of friends that I had there, we would have conversations about our sex lives really casually and very detailed, right? Very explicit, right? And that was fine in that space. There could even be a group of us, it didn’t even have to be one-on-one. It would just sort of be like, “This thing happened and let me tell you about this sexual encounter I had recently.” It was a very vulnerable thing to do.
And I think the other thing that I realized was that a lot of laughter happened too, and not out of disrespect but also out of, this is awkward and this is really funny, and this is a new territory and this is new, and this is information and it’s riveting and it’s exciting. And I think that is something I hope that my play does as well is like, “Oh, this is awkward. Oh, this is really cool. Oh, this is really interesting. Oh, this is really repulsive actually.” I want people to do that dance of the discomfort around sex.
Because once I left that circle in Los Angeles where it was really commonplace to talk about our sexual encounters, I went to Seattle where no one talked about their sex lives. And if I even asked a question that started to move in that direction, the wall went up. They wouldn’t even say, “No, we’re not talking about that.” There would be a sort of like, “Eh,” and then a change of subject. And I would be one-on-one with people doing this, too. And so I’d sort of be like, “Oh, what is this discomfort around, even saying anything even remotely hinting at what is happening sexually within the relationship?”
So I think it was that almost sort of reciprocal experience around friends and talking about sex that made me go like, “Oh, I think there’s something interesting about being able to be very frank about this onstage, because clearly not everybody is comfortable with talking about it.” And then for other people it’s going to be deeply fascinating and very like, “Oh yeah, I’ve had this conversation before.”
MW: A really rich image in the play is that one of the characters, due to a medical condition, can’t withstand pressure physically to his heart, his chest. Did you conjure that metaphor, and then find a medical condition that fit it? Or were you aware that people have had this experience, and then that struck you as perfect for this character?
BENNE: It actually came from life. I met someone who I dated briefly and that was one of the first things that started happening when we would start cuddling — he was like, “By the way, I should tell you about this thing, and about my inability to have too much pressure on my chest.” I thought it was really a fascinating thing. And it certainly, for me and my body, reminded me of the tenderness required when you’re interacting with anybody. But I think somebody who has a specific condition that makes them go, “Look, I need you to be especially conscious of how we’re interacting with each other” was really profound and moving, and certainly left a mark on me.
I thought it was a beautiful image in the play. And then the more that I researched pectus excavatum, I learned that there are various degrees to how serious it can be for people. In some people, it’s not that big a deal, but for others, it’s a huge deal. And I started also looking at some of the more severe, but older versions of the procedure where it would potentially leave these incredibly visible scars, and when I saw the position of the scars was very similar to where the spear would’ve gone into Jesus’ side, I was like, “Oh, this can’t not be part of the play. It just imagistically was working way too well.
MW: It brings into play the idea of someone asking for gentleness and saying, “I need it.” Especially in this world that’s so angry right now, it’s just frowned upon to ask for that grace, or ask for that tenderness. It seems like a radical act to have a character doing that, in support of their strength, it’s not a weakness. How do you feel about it?
BENNE: I think vulnerability is the most beautiful thing we can offer each other as humans. I also think, as exactly what you said, that I was certainly conditioned that showing people your vulnerability is weakness, and that you should hold as much in, especially as a man. I needed to hold as much in as possible — but I was not that kind of man. I was a softie, and most of my friends growing up in school were girls because I felt like I could be a lot more emotionally honest with them and with myself when I was around them, because they were being conditioned so much more differently than the boys that I was around.
Certainly the women in my life, my mother, her sisters, my grandmother were all people that I just felt a lot safer with, in being able to communicate with emotionally. And my father was a very closed human. And we had like… Maybe I shouldn’t say this, we had a contentious relationship. I mean, it was really jarring, too, because I think when I was really young, he was actually very nurturing of my artistic inclination and really supportive of it. And then there came a time where some kind of a line, I guess, got crossed somewhere in his mind, and suddenly it was not okay for me to be pursuing this thing. And that became really difficult.
But yeah, I think vulnerability is just so important. It’s something that I’ve been drawn to in my work and has been the crux of my work for so long. And I think that’s just come from a really intuitive place. And it wasn’t until midway through grad school, being at a highly competitive school where people are not vulnerable with each other necessarily and feel like they need to be critical of each other in that space. And that sort of breeding a really toxic environment, that Tarell Alvin McCraney and Anne Erbe, who are the co-chairs of our playwriting program were like, “You all are going to read All About Love by bell hooks. And we’re going to talk about what does it mean to have a love ethic in this program.”
And suddenly I think bell hooks gave me a vocabulary around love that I knew I had been lacking for a long time, because I’m like, “Oh right, in Spanish, we have a lot of different words for love that talk about the gradients of it, and have different applications depending on who you’re talking about,” whereas culturally in the United States, the English word “love” gets applied in so many different ways, from very charged, really profound, meaning something incredibly unique, to totally casual, and really flip.
So, what do you mean when you say love? I loved that bell hooks took so much time to be like, “This is that type of love, or this is that type of feeling that people like to call love,” right? And reading that book, I was suddenly like, “Oh my, God, so much of this is what I was trying to find vocabulary for in the writing of this play.” Now I had much more concrete language to be like, “Oh yeah, Daniel and Chris were cathecting in this moment. It’s not actually love yet, they’re just enjoying getting to know each other.” But it also comes with these really goofy feelings that feel like “I’m falling in love.”
MW: Did you say “connecting?”
BENNE: Cathecting. She has a word called cathexis that she talks about in that book. [The act of investing mental or emotional energy.] I hope I’m saying that correctly.
MW: You’re introducing me to it. I mean, I’ve read bell hooks, I want to read more bell hooks after this. So your last question, what does fulfillment in theater look like for you?
BENNE: I think the more that I’m doing it, I think it’s like finding people who I have a rapport with. I think so much of what has attracted me to theater at its core is that it was a space where if I brought in a play that was about sexuality and spirituality, it was an invitation for those of us who were in the room to start talking about it together. And I feel like the relationships that I’ve been able to make, bringing in the type of work that I’m interested in into rooms, has allowed me to create some of the deepest friendships that I’ve ever had. And even outside of the workplace, right? It’s sort of, it’s one thing to have collaborators that we work well together. And it’s another thing to be like, oh, we actually have an affinity as people and actually have experiences that don’t even necessarily have to be similar, but it’s like, I see you, I understand you. And that feels like a rarity in most spaces to me.
I just don’t know of that many places where I could go to have that kind of a relationship with someone, and skip the small talk, let’s get into the deep shit, right? And I think that’s what really attracted me to theater. And that feels the most alive. I love going to rehearsal. Yes, it’s nice that we have opening tonight, and that there will be an audience and a performance. And that’s what most people see, is the performance.
But for me, I think I’m finding that I just love the process. I love being with my collaborators. I love finding collaborators to be, “I want to keep working with you.” And people that I can have these incredibly deep and personal conversations with. And not even that they necessarily have to happen quickly, but that there is the opportunity for them to happen at all. I think it’s just a beautiful and inspiring thing and something that just keeps me coming back to the room.
In His Hands runs through July 17 at Mosaic Theater in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $20 to $68. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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