"By proving contraries, truth is made manifest."
-- Joseph Smith

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Margaret Blair Young's _I Am Jane_: A Truly Important Play

I Am Jane at the Covey Center for the Arts, July 22-23.

The Grand Theatre in Salt Lake recently finished their run of Margaret Blair Young’s I Am Jane, but I am very glad that the show is also going to the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo, UT, on July 22-23. I am glad because I want to shout from the rooftops to everyone who will listen to me, “Hallelujah! Go see this show!” Really, this may be your last chance. If you’re in driving distance of Provo on those nights, please, do yourself a favor and go see it. You’ll be a better human being for it.

Now the production isn’t perfect, nor is the script, and I’ll detail why that is later. But, in the end, my criticisms of the show don’t matter, because there are some productions that are simply important. Despite any flaws such shows have, the marred parts are overshadowed and outshone by the glory. And glory, as hyperbolic as that word can be, is the right word to use for this show. Glorious.

I Am Jane tells the story of a group of African-American Latter-day Saints, most notably the title character Jane Manning James and, to some degree, Elijah Abel. For those who haven’t brushed up on their Church History, Jane and Elijah, and those associated with them, were important because they were part of the very small group of early Mormon black pioneers. Jane and her folk joined the Church in Nauvoo, and Elijah joined in 1832. One of the peculiar things about Elijah Abel, and one of the things I have found that most Mormons simply don’t know, is that he was ordained to the priesthood by Joseph Smith, and became a seventy. That’s interesting because people of African descent could not receive the LDS priesthood through most of the Church’s history, until President Spencer W. Kimball received the revelation in 1978 that all worthy male members, no matter their racial descent, could receive the priesthood.

This is one of the most fascinating, if not uncomfortably tragic, issues the play brings up. In Nauvoo, under Joseph Smith, African-Americans seemed not only to have had a better time in the Church, but seemed to have been welcomed with open arms, especially by Joseph Smith. Jane was asked to be sealed to the Smith family by Emma and Joseph (a temple/priesthood ordinance which would later be denied to African Americans), and Elijah, as previously mentioned, would receive the priesthood office of a Seventy and was considered a good friend of the Prophet. The play also shows Joseph Smith’s views against slavery that can be read in his political platform for president.

But things change drastically after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom… under Brigham Young, temple and priesthood ordinances are denied to African-Americans, and racism runs rampant in Utah, including mob violence, excommunication and blatant racism against African-Americans who don’t accept their “place” and are not “satisfied” with the “blessings already given them.”

So the set up is quite a poignant, painful juxtaposition of what could have been. Under Joseph Smith, we see a tolerant, joyful acceptance of people of all races. In Utah, things become dark regarding racial progress and we find policies changing and injustices served and we see the prejudices inherited from the American culture of the time seeping in among the Saints and even effecting the leadership of the Church. I have heard some argue, including Church leaders, that Joseph Smith instituted the racial policy. I have not found convincing evidence of that. Even Brigham Young had more tolerant views of racial integration within the Church at the beginning. It doesn’t seem to be until Winters Quarters that the winds shift (for a good, general overview of these issues, I found this Wikipedia article surprisingly helpful, offering pieces of information I had not read or heard before).

Most people will find the information presented uncomfortable, even deeply disturbing, especially if they have not heard it before. Especially if one takes the view of a Prophet’s infallibility (which I don’t, and neither did Joseph Smith), it will create dissonance. However, if one believes that even good, powerful men such as Brigham Young and John Taylor can make mistakes and be influenced by the culture of their time, even in regards to Church policy (note that I use the word policy, not “doctrine.” I agree with David O. McKay who said the priesthood ban was a policy, not a doctrine), then this play should be no obstacle to anyone’s faith (quite the opposite!), despite its tragic nature. Especially as, throughout the play, we see the powerful faith, endurance, sacrifice and soulful beauty of the title character, Jane Manning James, and those associated with her.

So these have been some of the issues surrounding the story. Let’s dwell a moment on the actual production:

I have mixed feelings about much of the cast and their performances. I found most of the African-American cast very capably portrayed, while much of the Caucasian cast to have had some strange casting choices attached to them. This is the deep irony in Utah where, due to demographics, it should be much easier to cast a white role than a black one. More on the portrayals later.

It took me a moment to warm up to Tamu Smith, who played Jane. Her performance seemed muted compared to the lively performances of fellow actress La Shanda Hill who plays the smaller role of Jane’s sister Angeline. However, as the play progressed and I started understanding Jane’s character better, and picking up on the subtleties and nuances of Smith’s portrayal, I became more and more impressed and simply accepted her as Jane. It would seem to me that Smith would be very well suited to film, where these nuances would be more accentuated. As the play progressed, her portrayal rolled a deep seated pain, a shyness, an emotional depth. These could have been projected even more, considering the needs of a large theater as opposed to a small black box or a film screen. However, that’s a small concern considering what Smith was able to deliver in terms of soulfulness and tragic beauty.

Abe Willis was very capable as Elijah (which will be played by Danor Gerald at the Provo performances), portraying the role with verve, energy, pathos and humor. Keith Hamilton, who also acted as executive producer for the show, also had a strong performance as Jane’s husband Isaac. However, I would have liked a little more variance in the levels of his character. What he did, though, he did very well. Other major supporting roles played by Jenny Rock, Brandon Day, Peggy Matheson and Emmet C. Gill were all strong. I was also surprised that many of the actors who impressed the most had some of the smallest roles… Rita Martin, Danor Gerald, La Shanda Hill and Lauren Livingston could have all powerfully carried much larger roles than they were given.

This, however, had as much to do with the script as anything. Too many roles were brought on, only to be discarded without further development. I do not mind large casts, despite the problems it causes to a production in filling so many roles with competent actors, especially if you’re paying your actors and what that does to a budget. Heck, I’ve written a number of large casts myself, with varying degrees of success. What I was concerned about was how many of those roles were subsequently thrown away in the script. If you’re going to write a role, find out the reason you’re writing it, and if it’s not an important reason, then find a way to do without that character.

What would constantly happen in the play is that we’d see a character in one scene, and they would be set up with some importance, and then we would never see them again. Three examples I can immediately think of are the characters of Eliza Partridge Lyman, Samuel Smith and the mysteriously named “Orson” (which “Orson”? Orson Hyde? Orson Pratt? A fictional Orson?). This “Orson” appears in one scene, and could have been easily replaced by a character who we have already met. Her serves no real purpose in the play, except to tell Isaac that there are some finally black women in Nauvoo who he can court. And the inclusion of Samuel Smith mystifies me! He’s there for one very short scene, to declare (somewhat anti-climatically) Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. If it wasn’t for the program, a person wouldn’t even know it was Samuel Smith, because he isn’t even named in the dialogue. And the scene, which carries very important information, wasn’t developed. It’s sole existence seems to be to tell you that the Prophet is dead, without any of the needed emotion or gravitas that needs to accompany that information.

Eliza Partridge Lyman, on the other hand, is initially set up as an important character when we meet her, as she is declared as one of Jane’s best friends and Jane gives her some food which prevents Eliza’s family from starving. First, Eliza Lyman was miscast. Being one of Joseph’s younger plural wives (not that the point is brought up in the play), she would have been much more youthful than portrayed in the play. However, more important than a small detail like that, Eliza is declared as Jane’s good friend, one of her best. Yet their dialogue together is stilted and uncomfortable, filled with exposition-laden details that the two supposed friends should have already known about each other. And since she was set up as such an important friend, the audience is left to wonder, where was Eliza before this point in the play? Where is Eliza when Jane is enduring her hardships later on? If she’s such a good friend where is she? If I had read the script before hand, I would have promptly told Young to either excise the character completely, or to build her up to be a more important character. As it is, she serves as a minor plot point rather than a developed character, a vehicle to show Jane’s kindness rather than a vital part of the story’s overarching narrative.

These examples point to a deeper problem in the script… Young doesn’t necessarily know how to adapt this story into a theatrical format. Young, chiefly a novelist (and a talented one at that), doesn’t seem to understand the needs of the stage. In a novel, or even a film, throwing in one scene characters who don’t serve a pointed use to the plot or major characterization can be all right, because you have much more room to play with. But on stage, you only have a couple of hours to tell the story, and to go on wild goose chases, whether to fulfill minor historical details (and I sense was often the case here), or to provide convenient exposition, is problematic. You at least have to double cast such characters (which no effort was made to do here), otherwise the amount of actors, costumes and investment placed into the play exponentially increases. I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way in some of my plays, a lesson I’ve had to learn especially hard when I’ve also been a producer or a director.

But, for the most part, these roles were ably filled, especially the African-American roles. However, as I said before, some of the casting of the Caucasian roles on a whole gave me pause, especially the roles of Joseph and Emma Smith, small but vital roles in this story. Now with the casting of Joseph and Emma, I couldn’t tell if my issues had to do with the acting, the directing, the writing or the combination thereof.

Benjamin King, who played Joseph Smith, is a very strong actor. I’ve known him for many years and his performances rarely fail to impress me. Ironically, I have even cast him as Joseph Smith myself, in my play Friends of God, and thought that he did a fantastic job with the Prophet in that show. But something about this version of King’s “Brother Joseph” seemed off to me. King had a good friendliness, energy and mode of expression. But this portrayal of the Prophet, in the end, seemed very one dimensional.

Part of the problem had to do with the script, which surprised me, since I enjoyed Young’s presentation of the Prophet in her novel One More River to Cross. In the novel (which pretty much covers the same ground the play does) Joseph Smith seemed more three dimensional, more rugged, more human and thus, ironically, more likable. This Joseph seemed simplified, stiff, overly concerned about about fitting someone’s pre-conception, and thus not fitting anyone’s pre-conception. The Prophet became a talking point, quoting historical passages rather than having real conversations, preaching sermons rather than interacting as a human being would. Again, I can’t put my finger on where the root of this problem is in the production, but it was a indeed a problem, and became a disappointing distraction from some very important parts of the narrative.

However, Joseph in the end, was at least set up as a symbolic beacon showing the approach the Church should have taken with race. We end up siding with him, and loving what true semblance there is of him. The portrayal of Emma Smith, on the other hand, seemed to accidentally undermine the good that this approach was trying to do. Again, I couldn’t tell if this problem came from the script, the director’s instructions, or Valaura Arnold’s portrayal of Emma, but Emma came off as stiff and unlikable.

For example, there is a scene where Emma tells Jane that her and Joseph want to spiritually “adopt” Jane into their family, by sealing her to them. This could have been a powerful moment, showing Joseph and Emma’s intense love for this beautiful saint. However, with how it played out in the production, Emma seemed somewhat awkward and even condescending with the scenario, which created a different sort of racism, albeit a more benign one. I felt no true spark in the relationship, rather Emma set herself up as a superior over Jane, who needed the Smiths’ guiding hand, instead of being perfectly suited to being sealed to her own family. To understand the views of sealing people to the Prophet in those days is complex, and one has to understand that it happened to many people in early Church History, but no such context is given and instead it comes off as slightly offensive, if not well meaning. It tasted too much like the Native American placement program in the Church several decades ago, for my comfort, or the similar program of Australian Aboriginal children being adopted into white families, as chronicled in stories like Rabbit Proof Fence. Now, knowing Margaret Young’s impeccable reputation for race relations in the Church, I know this was not her intent. However, in future drafts and productions of the script, I would recommend something on some level be fixed to avoid that sense in that scene, because it does not support the message of the beautiful story being told.

I think the flaws that mar this otherwise beautiful script are a shame because of how easily they could have been avoided. It is evident that Young is a very good writer, and this script could have benefited from the tightening a trained playwright, dramaturg or a director accustomed to working with new scripts could have given. These issues could have been addressed and easily fixed.

However, as I mentioned before, these are small concerns when compared to the mighty things done in I Am Jane. Despite the somewhat flat nature of the white folks’ dialogue, the more important African-American characters’ dialects and dialogue is authentic, natural, specific to type and culture and filled with genuine pathos and humor. It was more like hearing the wonderful dialogue of an August Wilson play, rather than the white, culturally Mormon woman that I know that Margaret Blair Young is. The African-American characters are fully developed, powerful and dynamic, especially Jane. Young seems to “get” this culture, even perhaps more than her own, which I think is very interesting. She has been working for a long time within the African-American, Mormon community and it really shows by her passionate advocacy for the community’s causes. Supported by a talented design team (the costumes and set were awesome), a great, dedicated group of actors and a production staff that obviously love the story and have a mission, they’ve helped Margaret Blair Young bring off a story that, though flawed, simply burns away those flaws with the fire of the spiritual Pentecost that the play ignites.

As I said before, this play is important. Too many Mormons do not understand, nor even seem to want to understand, the issues addressed in this play. As faith promoting and inspirational as this story is, it in the end it comes off to me as a tragedy. Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel, Sylvester James, the beautiful African-American-Mormon minority that surrounded them… these were real people. And many injustices were heaped upon them. And people like them still live today, facing the same issues that their forefathers did.

As a people who have historically suffered many injustices ourselves, Mormons should be more sensitive and knowledgeable about these issues. We should know these stories. We should not be afraid of analyzing our own souls, and trying to root out the remaining vestiges of racism and discrimination that remain there. We’ve gone a long way as a Church and as a people. But subtle intolerance and a lack of true charity are still shadows we need to address. I’m surprised about the racist attitudes I still encounter among some otherwise good people in the Church. Many Mormons still have not put away the cultural mythology concerning African-Americans, whether it is the “curse of Cain” or the “less valiant in the pre-existence” excuses. I think at one point we need to come to grips that we are just as guilty, and just as influenced by the racist inheritance that many others in the world received. We’re better than we were, but we’re not done yet. Yet productions like I Am Jane go a long ways in helping us bring that mirror to our souls and force us to have a long, honest look at what we see there.

Tickets for I Am Jane can be purchased through The Covey Center for the Arts.

Sensitivity Rating: I Am Jane frankly addresses many offensive attitudes and actions concerning race, including the use of the “n” word. Although culturally important to the story, parents should be prepared to have long, honest discussions with their children about what their children see and hear in the story. There is also brief references to rape, polygamy and violence in the play, although in tasteful ways not shown on stage.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Manifestations: Personal Revelation and Art

Several months ago I was working through in my mind a project I was writing for my friend Danor Gerald and Jaclyn Hales. Danor and Jaclyn are very talented actors and I was hoping to design a show especially geared towards their particular talents. I originally was thinking of a one man show for Danor, which later turned into a two person show that included Jaclyn. I was really wracking my brains for this project and putting in some prayer. It was elusive... I didn't know what kind of show it was, what form it was going to shift into, nor the approach I should take. I was literally thinking it about for weeks, ranging from a one man show about Barack Obama to a Church play about African American throughout the history of the Church to a kind of post modern, surrealist play. Some of the ideas were getting kind of odd and nothing seemed to stick, nor did they ignite a passion to write. I was getting frustrated over the apparent stupor of thought.

One night, however, as I laid in bed, unable to sleep, I was literally overcome with a rush of thoughts and feelings. I don't remember there being much of a prelude to the onslaught of beauty and mental activity... I'm not sure if I was even thinking about the play. But suddenly my mind was alert with a flurry of thoughts and the play's essentials formed quickly in my mind. I had recently written a lot about mythology in my play Prometheus Unbound, and less directly in my play about C.S. Lewis, Swallow The Sun. I'm in love with the ideas that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed about Christianity being the "true myth." I believe that the Holy Ghost has revealed truths in many cultures and many mythologies, a kind of pre-existent memory that comes tumbling out in the form of stories. It connects in my mind to the psychologist Karl Jung's idea of a collective consciousness, and to Joseph Campbell's re-occurring mythical archetypes he discusses in A Hero of a Thousand Faces. That night this idea of "true myths" came back with a vengeance to me and it soon turned in a collection of world myths, connected by certain loose themes and two characters telling each other stories as their world fell apart. It formed into a very visual piece, with lots of multi-media and has since become one of my personal favorites of my work and I'm very excited for the time when the funding will be in place to do it right.

But, again, I was at a loss for a title that would encapsulate the ultimate meaning of the play, until I was driving to work one day and I was thinking about a title for the piece. The word "manifest" suddenly came to me. It really struck me, deeply. The more I thought and thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed. It's connection to Moroni's promise in the Book of Mormon came to me, "... if ye shall ask with sincere heart and real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things." (Moroni 10:4-5).

Since then it's been interesting how often I have found that word "manifest" repeated in all the standard works, especially the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and The New Testament. I keep stumbling upon it, and it usually has to do with revelation through the Holy Spirit or Christ manifesting himself to his people. If you look up the word "manifest" on the scriptures on LDS website (within the text, heading and footnotes) it comes up with 132 separate occurrences of the word. This idea of spiritual manifestations, of the Lord manifesting himself, can be found in everything from Genesis: "In a mount the LORD shall be manifest (seen)" (Genesis 22:14, footnote b); to the Gospels: "For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad" (Mark 4:22); to modern revelation: "But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord" (D&C 130:7).

Manifestation, or revelation, is vital to a Mormon's understanding of the Lord's Gospel. It is by the Holy Ghost we receive a testimony of Jesus, it by a personal witness, a personal manifestation that we receive an understanding of all things true. So how does that apply to our works of art? As a writer and a dramatist, I've had many experiences like the one stated above, where I've felt that the Lord was assisting me in my writing. Does this make it scripture? No, I don't think so.

I once had a conversation with a very talented playwright on this subject. He related a personal, spiritual experience with his writing where he felt specifically inspired, but then said that this in no way obligated anybody to feel in any way spiritually connected to his work, or to even like it. Which I completelty agree with. Too many times people think that just because something is supposedly "spiritual" that it somehow obligates them to feel a certain way about it. No, I think the Lord is more personal than that, "blessing us according to our desires." But in my mind, that didn't make it any less of a revelation to my playwright friend... just a personal revelation.

As an artist and a writer, I am not a prophet to the Church. I have no authority to receive any revelation for anyone beyond my stewardship. However, personal revelation IS my right. The scriptures are filled with such promises. I can receive revalation that relates to my personal life, work and experiences. I believe an architect, a plumber, a refrigerator salesman, a parent, etc. all have the same right, to ask for help from the Lord to magnify their efforts and make quality work. Obviously, a lot of what we do in our professions does not have a proselyting purpose. I'm a teacher, so it is not appropriate for me to be slipping Book of Mormons to my students. Nor should most of my plays have a proselyting purpose. But when we call on the Lord, we can still have his Spirit, his manifestations, inspire us to make a beautiful, quality work. A well made play to me is just as much of a revelation from God as a well made computer.

Sometimes I feel that we shy too much away from the more esoteric elements of our lives. The mysterious manifestations that occur and are difficult to explain to an unbeliever (or, very often, even a believer). Obviously, we never want to "cast our pearls before swine," unless we put the things of God up to ridicule. But those deeply beautiful moments of light ought not to be ignored either. When we cultivate a spirituality, a connection to the divine, our whole lives are made bright.

Many people look around embarrassed when I pull out experiences like the one with my play Manifest. It's become a kind of taboo subject to talk about certain kinds of spiritual experiences. Which is understandable, many people don't want to be labeled a nut job or an extremist. But I am sure grateful for the experiences I have had. Sure, the Gospel makes sense to me intellectually. Sure, the morality of the Church improves my life. But there is something so much deeper. So much more personal. I believe God talks to me, even when I'm not listening. Just as I believe He talks to you, even when you're not listening. He's crying in the wilderness, crying our names. His voice is not heard on the wind, nor in the gentle crackling of the fireside. His voice is not heard in the echoes of the king or the pounding of the drums. His voice is not heard even in something as intangible and personal as our imaginations or emotions. Dig deeper, it's even deeper... He will reveal Himself, and you will realize that there's a Presence there with you. You will realize that He is made manifest.

Reasons: Establishing the Tone

...I will reason as with men in days of old, and I will show unto you my strong reasoning. Wherefore, hearken ye together and let me show unto you even my wisdom--the wisdom of him whom ye say is the God of Enoch, and his brethren.... Wherefore, hearken and I will reason with you, and I will speak unto you and prophesy, as unto men in days of old.
-- Doctrine and Covenants 45: 1-11, 15

To immerse yourself in a subject is a dangerous thing, especially when that subject is a part of your core belief systems. To strive to understand such a subject in depth can often lead to a de-mystification process, a debunking of myths, an all out re-ordering of your world view and precious beliefs. However, it can also lead to deepening understanding; a more mature and seasoned perspective; a soulful engagement, a deeper love. Both sides of the spectrum have defined my relationship with my faith in Mormonism (what I consider the Restored Gospel of Christ) the past several years. An "agony and ecstasy" of putting aside cultural imperfections, while entwining myself like ivy even more to the trunk of the tree.

This blog is coming out of me as a response to the struggles of my friends and loved ones who have wrestled with the Mormon faith. Some were born in the Church, but have since left it quietly. Some have left the Church, and then turned fiercely against it. Some stay within the Church, but struggle in silent desperation as they try to find a way to keep alive or re-kindle their old belief, despite what they may see as contradictions or hypocrisies. Some investigated the Church because of an initial interest or spiritual experience, but then for one reason or another lost that momentum. Some are strongly believing members who simply struggle with some doctrine or policy, while others have never had anything but an antagonistic relationship to the Church. I hope to engage with many people within this wide spectrum of experience. I don't expect to entirely convince everyone of my believer's perspective, but I do believe that I'm equipped to at least start a deeper dialogue about Mormonism, whether one chooses to believe it or not. Thus I have created this blog to engage those who have some sort of relationship to Mormonism and desire to understand the perspective of a believer, even if they are essentially not a believer themselves. Whether one is an orthodox Latter-day Saint, a secular atheist, an Evangelical, a Muslim, a member of an off shoot of Mormonism, an inactive Mormon (or a former one), a neo-pagan, or anything else, I hope that one could find something of value from understanding the world view of this believing Mormon.

This is not necessarily a proselyting blog (although I certainly wouldn't mind if people came to embrace Mormonism more fully because of it either). Yet I do hope that it will at least help people understand why an academically minded, intelligent, compassionate, tolerant and spiritual person might believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and the "restored Gospel," without relegating such a person to a member of a deranged cult or under the influence of a misguided delusion. I've strived to immerse myself in Church History, doctrine, culture, art and spirituality the past several years and have had to encounter for myself the difficulties and glories of being a Mormon. So I'm coming from a relatively informed position, having had to discard many of my more simplistic models of Mormonism. This, I believe, has deepened my faith, while still giving me room to understand and empathize with those who do not believe.

I don't plan to sugar coat any of my entries... this is as much of a journey as an explanation, a chronicle of struggles as well as a declaration of belief. As a playwright, as an amateur Mormon Historian, as a inquisitive mind, and as an intense spiritual seeker, I've had to ask myself the hard questions to center myself as a faithful Mormon. The intricasies of Church History, of former practices such as racial exclusion or polygamy, of current controversies, or of personal heartaches, are not new or superficial subject matter to me. Anyone who has seen my plays knows that I do not shy away from difficult questions. However, in the end, I believe that God answers the difficult questions, which, in the end, is why I'm a believer.

In this blog, I will chronicle that belief. Many of the entries will be more academic, while others will be intensely personal and spiritual. I will talk about books, history, culture, art, dreams and what I consider to be intimately spiritual manifestations. What I may write about may make some people uncomfortable. What I may write about may make people think that I'm absolutely, raving mad. But I'm going to take that risk. Because if I can at least bring some understanding to the WHY of my belief, then I will feel a certain level of accomplishment. I hope that my position will be respected, as I've tried to respect the positions of others. So I hope all comments and dialogue will remain civil, kind and engaging. Contention is not what I want from this, but rather a manifestation of my faith. In the end I think we all hope to be understood:

For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own...
--Doctrine and Covenant 88:40