Brett Johnson’s one-man show “Poly-Theist” is a story of faith and strength that follows an unusual path. Johnson grew up in an evangelical household, went to a religious school, and married his college sweetheart. That’s the “Theist” part. The story gets complicated five years into the marriage when they decide to see other partners. That’s the “Poly” part.
“The tagline version is that I was a married 21-year-old monogamous evangelical, and then I became the opposite,” says Johnson, 33, who brings the show to the Rozzi Square Theater Saturday and Nick’s Bar and Restaurant in Worcester on March 29. “I think it’s really about that trip and what I find on the way there.”
When he was growing up, it would have been hard for Johnson to imagine even having a relationship. It was difficult enough for him and his friends to sort out puberty without his religion teaching him that, as he says in the show, sex was destructive. He was starting to have questions even then. “It’s weird that violence was fine, sex was not,” he says, recalling a joke from his act. “Growing up, playing ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ if my dad walked in he’d be like, ‘Hey, you’d better not pick up that prostitute. But you hit her with your car . . . let me flip through Leviticus. I think we can find something.’ ”
But Johnson’s family was no simple caricature. His parents both had master’s degrees — his father has since gotten his PhD in political science — and traveled frequently. Johnson spent more than two years of his teens in Nairobi, where his father was working. “The belief system was still definitely part of the upbringing,” he says, “but it didn’t preclude exposure to education or culture.”
When he met his wife at Gordon College in Wenham, everything seemed to be on track. They were engaged in Johnson’s junior year, and she challenged him in positive ways once they were married. She instituted “Real Talk Sundays” to foster honest communication. He was in a committed, monogamous relationship in keeping with the moral and religious principles he had been taught. Johnson had discovered comedy, but secured a full-time job to support the marriage. “Some of the forced guidelines there made me have to get more responsible at a little more accelerated rate,” he says.
But after five years, they began discussing the possibility of opening up their marriage and decided to become a polyamorous couple.
Johnson leaned on his Christian upbringing to accept the arrangement, in that he was taught to put others before himself. In that sense, an open marriage was empowering. “It’s like committing to putting my needs second,” he says. He tells the story of a couple he knows who have trouble communicating, and how the husband will do things like get up early to feed the kids and do laundry. “It’s almost like he’s converting his own turmoil into service,” says Johnson. “And that feels good. When you serve people, it feels good. It feels right. It feels like I’m doing the thing for someone else, and that’s what I should be doing.”
The decision wasn’t made lightly. The couple didn’t tell most of their friends at first. And when Johnson finally started to joke about it onstage, he could feel some resistance from his audience. “I could tell, I’ve lost them a bit with this piece, and then I lost them a little more with this piece,” he says. “And then when it would work, I would be like, all right, that was a very fine line that we all walked down.”
In pop culture, open relationships are sometimes played as cautionary tales to solidify the concept of monogamy — the curious couple who destroy their marriage by seeing other people. Johnson sees that perception changing slowly, and that more positive references are popping up in shows like “Broad City” and “High Maintenance.” But there is still a stigma. “I really think it’s one of the very last few of the sacred cows,” he says.
He and his wife eventually divorced but stayed together for a while before drifting apart. And though Johnson is now in a monogamous relationship, he is still pro-polyamory. Every relationship has its own parameters. As he says in the show, he realizes polyamory and monogamy are “ways people are together, not the way people are.”
In his show, Johnson has some serious points to make about the nature of religion and relationships; keeping it funny has required a delicate balance. The stories have to serve some bigger purpose than just a punchline. “It was an emotional process for me,” he says. “I was writing and just spilling, spilling, spilling. This show was a part of my synthesizing, a part of me getting through it.”
“Poly-Theist” is a unique story with plenty of twists, but Johnson believes it will resonate with a larger audience. He has been touring with the show, bringing it to Chicago, Albany, N.Y., and West Hartford, Conn., with stops coming up in Pittsburgh and Portsmouth, N.H. Johnson hopes to get it into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“I care about the message,” he says. “I care about the things in the show. I feel like they’re places we need a road to get to, and I think the road I took to get out of my first bubble into this one is relatable enough that I think some people can pick something up along the way.”
At the Rozzi Square Theater, Roslindale, March 23 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets $10, 617-231-7006, www.rozziesquaretheater.com.
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.