Claybourne Elder considers himself an ex-Mormon.
But when you talk to the Utah-raised actor, you get the idea that there’s more involved than simply embracing or rejecting a belief system.
He might be “ex,” but he descends from generations of Americans who created their own brand of Christianity based on revelations delivered on golden plates by an angel to a living prophet in upstate New York.
Those same believers endured persecution in Illinois, Ohio and Missouri before trekking across an unsettled frontier to the Great Salt Lake.
When you come from that tradition, it could be that the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ fiery history is embedded in your DNA. In other words: once a Mormon, always a Mormon.
Elder has been to the Mormon church’s Independence Visitors’ Center. He has driven by the Temple Lot, a congregation distinct from the Mormon Church that happens to own a specific piece of ground in Independence where, according to Mormon beliefs, the saints will gather before the second coming of Christ.
And he’s been to Liberty Jail Historic Site, where prophet Joseph Smith was imprisoned with a small band of followers in 1838.
Now Elder is playing Joe Pitt, a closeted gay Mormon, in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s colossal two-part epic, “Angels in America.” He has no idea if he’s the first Mormon actor to play Pitt, but he does bring a large degree of specific background knowledge to the role.
Elder said Kushner’s script is saturated with Mormon symbols that could easily escape the notice of a non-Mormon theatergoer, who might see some of the allusions as surrealistic flourishes.
“This is what’s most surprising about the play,” he said. “Tony definitely read the history of the Mormon church because … there are so many Mormon references that you only get if you study it, or if you’re a Mormon.”
For example, Elder said, the appearance of the Angel to Prior Walter, a central character stricken with AIDS, parallels the vision of Joseph Smith when the angel Moroni delivered the golden tablets.
“There’s this whole sequence in the second play about the ‘vision implements,’” he added. “They’re like these weird glasses that he puts on. And you would think that this was just some strange thing of Tony Kushner’s imagining and just kind of accept it.
“But it’s a real thing in the Mormon Church — the Urim and Thummim — and it’s what Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.… It’s hilarious to me, and it’s so ingenious of Tony Kushner to put these things in and not even really reference them as being a Mormon thing. There’s this layer folded into it.”
Elder, 32, said he had to learn about politics in the Reagan era to background his character — a closeted Republican working for the closeted Roy Cohn and hoping to rise in the party.
But Elder said there’s not much in Joe Pitt for him to relate to. In 2012 Elder married Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, and Elder’s family was supportive. In fact, he said, he grew up in fairly liberal environment.
“Joe Pitt’s life versus my life are two such separate things,” he said. “If you take out the Mormon things, there’s just very little (we have in common). My family is so wonderful and lovely and supportive.
“At our wedding my dad said a Mormon prayer. Everyone cried when he did. My 82-year-old father. I am very lucky in that I come from a very accepting family.”
Elder said he had seen the second “Angels in America” play, “Perestroika,” at the University of Utah, but has never seen “Millennium Approaches” on stage. He has seen the HBO miniseries, which Mike Nichols directed, but he thought it failed to capture the play’s theatricality.
Mormonism isn’t the only religion central to Kushner’s themes in “Angels.” He also looks at different aspects of Judaism, and in the character of Cohn depicts an anti-Semitic Jew. But the Mormons represent something unusual in American history: An indigenous version of Christianity that became a major faith.
“It is true that only in America, and kind of only at that time, could somebody say, ‘An angel appeared to me and told me to make my own religion, and not only that, but Jesus and God appeared to me and told me to make a religion,’” Elder said.
“There are as many Jews in the world as there are Mormons. I joke that this play … is a Jewish-Mormon play and that’s pretty much my life. Not only am I Mormon, but I married a Jew. So it’s all there.”