Jazmine “Jazzy” Peterson was on Ogden’s 25th Street recently, asking restaurant owners if it was OK to put up posters for the play in which she was performing, a musical called “The Good Shepherds.”
Crafted by producer/composer David Nolan, the musical examines the practice of tithing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story centers on a journalist, Laura (played by Krystal DeCristo), who investigates, as the play’s website puts it, “religious organizations whose charitable contributions pale in comparison to their immense wealth.”
“The Good Shepherds” is set to be performed Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 18-20, at the Syracuse Arts Academy Amphitheater, 357 S. 1550 West, Syracuse.
After putting up a poster at one establishment, Peterson, who plays a character called Millie, saw a woman pull down the poster she had just put up. Peterson went back inside and confronted the woman: “Excuse me, you can’t do that.”
The woman accused Peterson of being a vandal, and that the poster was the “devil’s work,” Peterson said. The woman, Peterson said, then started commenting on the actor’s clothing: “She said, ‘Obviously, you’re not a member because I can’t see your garments,” the symbolic underwear devout Latter-day Saints wear.
It’s not the first instance, Nolan said, that the musical has generated strong reactions before its production.
“Our favorite one recently was people yanking our posters down and replacing them with handwritten scriptures,” Nolan said, with a laugh.
Some reactions have been quieter, he said, like encounters with venues and marketing companies who “don’t want to touch the production,” he said, because they have “misjudged it.”
That level of strong response extends to the cast members’ families.
“We have multiple cast members who are being ostracized and, in some cases, cut off from their families,” Nolan said, adding that “cast members are afraid to share the production with their families, afraid to share it on social media.”
Peterson said that with her in-laws, there’s a general dismissal when the topic of the musical comes up, as they brush it away like it’s not happening.
“My grandpa has told me multiple times,” she said, “how disappointed he is in me for doing this.”
Nolan said he became interested in the church’s practice of tithing — a “privilege,” as the church calls it, in which members heed a scriptural command to donate 10% of their income to the church “to show their gratitude to God” and “help further the work of the Lord in the earth” — when he read investigative articles in The Wall Street Journal and other publications, which detailed the billions the church has invested in its stock portfolio.
Nolan, an active Latter-day Saint who said he sought financial help from the church in 2018 and was turned down, said he and his wife have had arguments about paying their tithing.
“I have been there, guilted into paying 10%,” Nolan said. Often, the question has boiled down to a choice, he said: “Should we pay tithing this month or should we buy food for our kids?”
Chris Metz, the musical’s scriptwriter and co-director (with choreographer Stacee Perry), said the issues explored in the play are familiar to the cast members.
“A lot of them are part of the LGBTQ community, some of them have been part of the homeless community,” Metz said. “Many struggle with mental illness. Many are current and former members of the church.”
Nolan said he didn’t expect to be “turned into a villain” for trying to amplify this conversation.
“The problem is that members are terrified to say anything that could possibly put them at odds with church leaders,” he said. “It’s this unspoken [thing]. Don’t even think about it.”
Despite the backlash, Nolan and Metz said they are excited to finally show the production, which they describe as powerful — and Metz called universal.
Some of the preemptive responses have been positive. Metz said he met one woman who was defensive at first, but eventually opened up and listened.
“She understood that we weren’t out there to hurt anybody’s faith; we just wanted to try and make religion a safer place for people,” Metz said.
“I don’t want to paint the broad-stroke brush that every single Mormon hates this concept,” Nolan said. “I have actually had a lot of feedback from active members of the church who think this is long overdue, that the church desperately needs transparency.”
Last week, the church’s governing First Presidency announced a change to the process in which local lay leaders interview their congregants to discuss their tithing. The meeting was long called a “tithing settlement,” but as of Sept. 1, it will be called a “tithing declaration.”
“This change emphasizes that the primary purpose of this interview is to provide members with an opportunity to declare their tithing faithfulness, not to ‘settle’ an account,” The First Presidency explained in its announcement. “The focus should be on the member’s covenant relationship with Heavenly Father and on teaching the spiritual nature of tithing, especially to children and youth.”
Nolan said he found it “quite ironic” that the church’s leadership announced, one week before “The Good Shepherds” was set to open, that “they’re starting to soften their language when it comes to their strong-arm tactics.”
The takeaway Metz said he hoped audiences get from “The Good Shepherds” is: “Ultimately, we don’t want anyone to feel like they have to choose between this show and their faith.”
“The Good Shepherds” is set to be performed Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 18-20, at the Syracuse Arts Academy Amphitheater, 357 S. 1550 West, Syracuse. Tickets are available at thegoodshephers.net.
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