Secondhand Grace

An Excerpt from a Short Play by Brian Farrey-Latz

CHARACTERS

CLAIR HARWARD
26, fey, critical, and very, very angry

MIKE HOWARD (nonspeaking role)
27, a bright eyed, eager young man
(No matter how the action moves or where     the location changes, Mike is always present and sees nothing going on around him.)

SHADES
Flexible number/any sex/adults of any age playing all named roles; these are echoes reaching out from Clair’s life; they represent his past, his present, and what will never be

PLACE
Somewhere

TIME
Somewhen

Brief Synopsis: In 1985, the Salt Lake City Tribune published a photo of Clair Harward, a young gay Mormon diagnosed with AIDS who’d recently been excommunicated from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Secondhand Grace is a one act play that pieces together parts of Harward’s life from a handful of existing documents and imagines his reaction to a group of gay Mormons who attempt to baptize Harward months after his death as a means of securing his place in the afterlife.

A void.
A single shaft of light from above illuminates a smiling young man, kneeling near a small table. He’s wearing Mormon baptismal garments. He looks heavenward as if in a private conversation with God himself. This is MIKE HOWARD (29).
From the darkness behind Mike steps a thin man, pale and unblemished skin, naked but for his underwear. This is CLAIR HARWARD (26).
Clair slowly walks around Mike who does not (cannot?) see him.
CLAIR
(to audience)
Not bad, I suppose. For someone who’s meant to be me. A little more meat on his bones. But then, I always liked men on the beefy side.
Mike takes a copy of the Book of Mormon from a table and begins reading.
CLAIR
(to audience)
His name is Mike Howard. Mike Howard. It could get confusing. My name is Clair Harward. Har-ward. Two As and an extra R. Mike is about to undergo a very special Mormon rite. Baptism for the dead. It’s kind of a way to save the soul of someone who died and definitely isn’t going to heaven. Mike is a proxy for me. Very soon, he’s going into the next room to be immersed in water. And this will be my salvation.
Mike sets down his book, folds his hands, and prays silently.

CLAIR
(to audience)
We Mormons do this kind of shit a lot. Did you know that members of the LDS church secretly baptized Hitler? Yep. Hitler, Anne Frank…. They had to cover both sides of the Holocaust.  Pissed off a lot of Jews. To us, we’re fulfilling a holy mandate. We truly, truly believe that only members of our faith can go into the afterlife. So, it doesn’t matter what religion you were raised or where you’re from: if you die and we baptize someone in your name, you’re a dead Mormon now, bitch.
Clair pauses to wave his hand in front of Mike’s eyes. Mike sees nothing.

CLAIR
(to audience)
There’s a chance you’ve heard of me. A teeny, tiny chance. I made national news.
One by one, SHADES step from the darkness.

SHADE #1
January 8, 1986, United Press International. ‘Dying Homosexual Seeking Guidance is Excommunicated Instead.’
SHADE #2
January 9, 1986, Arizona Republic. ‘Mormon Church Shuns Dying Gay AIDS Victim.’
SHADE #3
January 10, 1986, Santa Cruz Sentinel, “Excommunicated and dying, AIDS victim regrets lifestyle.”
CLAIR
Slow down, slow down, let a lady bask in her fame for a moment. No, really, the story syndicated. I was in papers all over the country. Think of all the pearl clutching those nasty old biddies in the Bible belt did when they read the story. I did that. You’re welcome.
A young boy, DENNY MILLER, emerges from the darkness bouncing a ball.
DENNY
Clair? That’s a girl’s name.
CLAIR
There’s no need to bore anyone with my origin story. You’ve heard it all before. Bright, promising young Mormon realizes he’s different from the other boys at a young age.
He knocks the ball out of Denny’s hand. Denny glares at him for a second. Then they start making out, hard and heavy.
Denny exits
.
CLAIR
Relax. I may have exaggerated my first boy on boy encounter just a bit. That’s how utterly ordinary I was. But growing up Mormon in the 60s and 70s, my upbringing in regards to the church’s teachings on homosexuality might have been a little more extreme than some of you are used to.
Shades emerge from the dark again.

SHADE #1

Sinner!

SHADE #2

Vile!

SHADE #3

Loathsome!
DENNY

Prostitute!

CLAIR

You shut your mouth, Denny Miller. Paying you in pudding cups at age twelve to touch my wiener doesn’t make me a prostitute.
Denny bows his head and vanishes.

CLAIR
Horny bastard didn’t even hold out for two pudding cups. Point is: it’s drilled into our heads at a very young age that men lying with men is a no-no. I know that’s true of a lot of religions: Catholicism, Islam., Capitalism. And I can’t quite put my finger on why, but when you’re a Mormon, crossing that line is just so…. much…. naughtier.
Throbbing club lights. A driving synth pop beat. SHIRTLESS BOYS bump and grind. Clair regards them longingly.

CLAIR
No, really, how can this much pretty be wrong?
A CLUB BOY dances with Clair.
CLUB BOY
Haven’t seen you here before.
CLAIR
(to audience)
I said he was pretty, not original.
(to Club Boy)
Just moved here from Ogden.
CLUB BOY
Ahhh, new to the great Salt Lake, huh? Need a guide?
The Club Boy brushes Clair’s cheek with the back of his hand. Everything freezes.
CLAIR
(to audience)
Whatever’s left of me right now? This spirit or whatever word you wanna use… It’s the purist me there is, distilled down. Free of the lies that people told to me or about me, divorced of petty hatred. All I am right now is truth and I want to say this: I had so few ‘true’ moments in my life. But this was one of them.
The music and lights return as Clair and Club Boy dance.
CLAIR
(to audience)
I can’t even tell you his name. And if we’re being honest, he probably gave me a fake one. One of dozens I collected during my years of debauchery in Salt Lake City. And maybe I was a little naive but—
Everything slows down. Club Boy again brushes Clair’s cheek.
CLAIR
(to audience)
This true moment told me I’d made the right decision: To drop out of high school and get the fuck out of Ogden. Even if the only thing to come from this boy was….well, cum, it wouldn’t have phased me in the least. You’re thinking I was beguiled, that I lost my mind the first time another boy touched me. But we’ve established this wasn’t my first close encounter of the queer kind.
Denny Miller steps into the light, licking out the inside of a pudding cup. When he notices everyone looking at him, he skulks away.
Everything’s back to normal speed.
CLUB BOY
I live two blocks away. Let’s go!
All dissolve into black except Clair and Mike, who continues to pray.
CLAIR
I probably slept with him. Can’t remember. The thing about being composed of nothing but truth is that you don’t have to deal with a lot of the bullshit anymore. The embarrassingly bad sex. The drunken moments when I made poor choices. They happened but I only keep those moments that built me. There’s a liminal space between before and after. That’s where I live now.
A MORMON enters and addresses Mike.
MORMON
Ten more minutes and we’ll be ready.
Mike nods and the Mormon exits.
CLAIR
Mikey lives here too. He’s on the cusp of after. Every breath he takes and uses for prayer is just another tether to his before. He’s part of the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ, a gay sect of Latter-Day Saints who specifically minister unto the homos. Mikey means well. But I’m hoping, before he moves into his after, that he has a change of heart. I’d like to think that I can save Mikey if I stop him from saving me.
A young man, DAVID, steps forward.
CLAIR
I’ll never know for sure but I think David here gave me HIV. Not on purpose, of course.  We were both babes in the woods.
DAVID
Hi.
CLAIR
Hi.
DAVID
You look amazing.
CLAIR
You have gorgeous eyes. You seem nervous.
DAVID
I’ve never been with a Mormon before. You won’t burst into flames if I touch you, right?
They laugh. They start to get more physically intimate.
CLAIR
If I do, Jesus won’t have anything to do with it.
(to audience)
I never, ever said I was good at come hither small talk. Cut me some slack.
DAVID
Cool, cool… Just so you’re good with everything.
CLAIR
I am good with everything. My reputation precedes me.
DAVID
No, I mean… I dated this Catholic guy once. Talk about self-loathing. I think he self-flagellated every time after we had sex.

CLAIR
(to audience)
There’s a really obvious self-flagellation joke here but I like to think I’m above such low hanging fruit.
DAVID
He stopped seeing me because the guilt got to him.
CLAIR
He didn’t know what he was missing.
David pulls back a little.
DAVID
I guess, I mean… Maybe this is just a hook-up to you. And if it is, that’s cool. But, you know, we had a good talk and you seem really nice and if this goes anywhere, I don’t want to be left holding the bag.
CLAIR
Do all your tricks get to hear to this talk?
DAVID
Is it off-putting?
CLAIR
It’s weird. I like weird. So, what’s your religious background?
DAVID
Don’t really have one. I mean, we did Christmas and Easter in our family but church wasn’t a thing for us.
CLAIR
Wish I could say the same. For my family, it was all about the church.
DAVID
How do you do it?
CLAIR
Do what?
DAVID
Know that your church hates everything you are but you keep doing it.

CLAIR
There are hundreds of faiths around the world. You get what you’re born into. But people switch out all the time. Jews become Christians, Christians become Buddhists…  As soon as I realized that—when I saw for sure that religion was a choice but I had no say in who I was attracted to—it became a lot easier.

 

Brian Farrey-Latz earned his MFA in writing from Hamline University in 2008. His short play, The Precious Scars, about an imagined meeting between Oliver “Billy” Sipple and Harvey Milk, was recently produced by the Little Theatre of Alexandria. His most recent play, a queer take on the Neil Gaiman short story, The Wedding Present, performed at the Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2022. He lives in Minnesota with his husband.