Leave of Absence's Lucia Frangione turns hate into love

In her provocative new play Leave of Absence, Lucia Frangione takes on the church’s attitudes toward homosexuality as sin
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“They are the Antichrist,” playwright Lucia Frangione says of U.S. evangelicals. “And the Ratzinger isn’t helping either.” Frangione is angry with the homophobic influence of both American born-again Christians and of Pope Benedict XVI, who was originally known as Joseph Ratzinger. “I couldn’t believe his Christmas message,” she says of the Pope. “He said homosexuality is ‘destroying the very essence of the human creature’. I haven’t heard propaganda like that since the Nazis tried to justify extermination of the Jews.”

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Frangione is talking to the Straight in a room above Pacific Theatre’s performance space, where the company will soon produce her latest work, Leave of Absence. It’s about a Catholic teenager named Blake who is accused of lesbianism, then assaulted.

Earlier, Blake hears God speaking to her in a female voice. The other characters in the play also experience faith in their own ways. Father Ryan, who counsels Blake at her Catholic high school, is a former scientist who envies Blake’s mystical experiences. Martha, the school principal, is into the female Christian mystics, including Mechthild of Magdeburg, who wrote in the 13th century, and who Martha quotes in the script as saying: “I am a full grown bride, I want my lover to come, to come, I want my lover to come inside of me.” Greta, Blake’s mom, is a liberal provocateur, who wonders, “Am I even a Catholic if I disagree with so much of the doctrine?” And Leap, a Russian former boxer and current mystery man, mostly seems to believe in his own well-scrubbed sexiness.

Frangione felt compelled to create Leave of Absence partly because of an attack that took place when she was in junior high. “A girl was bullied for being ‘lesbian’ (really I think she was just poor and socially awkward),” she writes in her playwright’s notes. “A gang of boys eventually pulled her clothes off at recess and shoved pencils up her to see if she was built like other girls.”

The kicker for Frangione was that, although she knew about the assault, she didn’t tell anybody in authority about it. “I just thought, ‘How embarrassing for that girl,’ ” she tells the Straight. “I didn’t understand the impact of that kind of violence. I felt bad for her. I was extra nice to her. But I didn’t think about reporting it.”

In a way, Leave of Absence is Frangione’s penance for her silence—and a challenge to others to speak out against homophobia. “It’s time for the voice of the compassionate Christian to roar,” she declares.

 

The heterosexual playwright says that her own relationship to homosexuality hasn’t always been easy—but it has strongly shaped her relationship to her faith. “My dad was Catholic,” she says, “and my mom went to the Nazarene Church. That’s one of the stricter Protestant churches; they’re really hardline. I was taught that, to the Catholics, homosexuality was intrinsically disordered. And, on the Nazarene side, it was a disease that could be cured. So that was a double whammy of badness.”

Still, the playwright-to-be loved her gay Uncle Harry, or Uncle Dud, as he preferred to be known. “He had these white pantsuits and this completely gold-lamé house,” Frangione remembers. “Orange shirts. When I write, I still sip out of his little gold and yellow teacup.” So there was love, but there was still conflict. “Overall, I would say I thought that it [homosexuality] was an unfortunate problem.”

Frangione’s world view altered radically in 1993 when she moved from the hamlet of Rosebud, Alberta, where she trained at the Rosebud School of the Arts, to Vancouver. Playwright Aaron Bushkowsky took her to see Headlines Theatre’s production of Flesh and Blood, which includes a gay couple. (Full disclosure: I wrote that script.) “I’d never seen that before: two men very physically involved with each other, and in love,” Frangione recalls. “I was so upset that I was trembling and physically ill. And I thought, ‘If I’m this physically affected by something I’m not used to, it must be affecting my thoughts and that’s not right.’ And then I prayed about it and thought about it and I went through my Bible again—and that changed my life. From that point on, I said, ‘No. I cannot say that it’s sin. I’m going to embrace love.’ ”

In 2001, that embrace got Frangione into trouble. She had been attending a church in Point Grey, which she declines to identify, but which she describes as a Pentecostal affiliate. “They refused me membership after I’d attended for several years,” she recalls, “because I wouldn’t say that homosexuality was sin. So I left.”

Leave of Absence is the first script in which Frangione has specifically championed queer sexuality in the context of a community of faith, but she has long been dedicated to reuniting Eros and Christianity. In Espresso, which was first produced at Pacific Theatre in 2003, a spirit named Amante appears to three women and quotes the erotic verse of “The Song of Solomon”: “Never awaken until love is ripe.” And the ecstatic visions of the female mystics, whom the character Martha quotes in Leave of Absence, intrigue the playwright. Frangione sees the sensual, sometimes sexual element in the mystics’ writing as “one of the many metaphors that encompass what God is”.

Those mystics were nuns, of course, women who not only turned their backs on earthly carnality but also supported a church that is renowned for its negative attitudes about sex. Asked why she continues to embrace Christianity, despite its track record on sexuality, Frangione replies: “For me, it’s about rethinking your faith so that you can own it. All of these ideas that I’ve heard all of my life, I’ve rethunk ’em. And now they’re mine and nobody can tell me what to believe. I feel strong because Jesus is my Jesus, the church is my church, the kingdom is my kingdom, and the love is my love.” 

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Lucia Frangione
Thank you so much for this article. I want to clarify, I feel the words spewed from the Westboro Baptist church are "anti-Christ". There are amazing inspiring progressive and loving people in all religious circles, including US evangelicals and the Roman Catholic church. Within my play, all the characters are Catholic and each one has a differing view. Neither Pacific Theatre nor I have any desire to discriminate against a particular group of believers. In fact ,that's the exact opposite of what the play is aiming to do. My apologies if my wording was misleading and I appreciate this conversation immensely. Sincerely, Lucia Frangione
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L. Graves
I had read nothing about it and none of the program notes before the play began so hadn't a clue what to expect when we saw this play on Saturday. We were blown away by the skill of the writer, the actors, the composer and the director. It has been decades since I've seen such a crafted piece of theatre.

"Leave of Absence" is respectful of each of the many perspectives portrayed. What was unexpected was also the wry humour that often bubbled up. A play of great depth performed by actors of the highest quality.
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