"Listen for the Light," a world premiere play opening April 21 at the Know Theatre, is an American story, though perhaps not the American story of your history books.
The three-person play by Kara Lee Corthron tells the story of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, in the weeks before his death in Illinois, alongside those of a former slave turned Mormon and a young girl who is waiting for a divine sign to decide if she'll be Smith's next bride.
Three actors -- Darnell Pierre Benjamin, Josh Katawick and Tess Talbot -- take turns playing each part as the production explores the intersections of race, class, gender and spirituality.
"They're playing with gender, race and religion in exciting and very specific ways," director Tamara Winters said. "It's a very smart play. … Everyone in the play is challenging. Everyone in the play is human and deeply flawed. But she doesn't demonize anyone."
Winters found the script through an online database that allows theaters to find and bid for original work. Having seen another of the writer's productions in New York, Winters said, she knew she wanted to work with her, and her enthusiasm for the script won over Corthron.
The story can seem confusing, Corthron said.
"I'm a black woman in New York writing about Mormons."
And, she added, she's taking Mormonism and religious belief seriously, not playing it for laughs or irony.
"I'm all about exercising the empathy muscle," Corthron said. "And it's something that has to be exercised constantly."
Corthron grew up with friends who were Mormon and was fascinated by the American-born religion, its beliefs and restrictions. That's why she picked up "Under the Banner of Heaven," Jon Krakauer's book about the birth and evolution of Mormonism, and a single footnote became the inspiration for "Listen for the Light."
The tiny note that captured Corthron's imagination was about Elijah Abel, one of the earliest African-American Mormons. Corthron tried to research the history of the former slave but came up empty-handed. So she wrote him a background in the play.
"Eli was my wishing there was a history of Elijah," she said.
Krakauer's book also mentions a young girl -- Lula in Corthron's play -- who told Joseph Smith she would marry him only if she received a sign from God. The prophet permitted her to wait for this sign, which she did receive.
"'Did' in quotes," Corthron said. "Whether it did or not, we'll never know, but she believed it did. Putting these two people in a room together really interested me."
Stripping the play down to three characters and three actors allowed Corthron to hone in on their faith and relationships -- the heart of the play, Corthron said. What does faith mean to each individual, to the collective? What does it mean to have love for each other? What does it mean to be marginalized, either by birth or by choice?
Corthron, who also has a young-adult book, "The Truth of Right Now," out, will be in Cincinnati to develop the production with Winters for its world premiere.
The show runs April 21 through May 13, and tickets start at $25.