“Bread of Affliction” and Cultural Self-Consciousness

Note: “Bread of Affliction” is being judged this week for the American College Theatre Festival. It’s playing this Saturday, 7:30-8:15 p.m., in the JFSB Little Theater (Room B192) at Brigham Young University. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. and admission is free. They need a good audience, so if you live in the area, consider taking this excellent opportunity to see the play.

The BYU Experimental Theatre Company was invited to write a play for the Society of Jewish-American and Holocaust Literature, which held its national symposium in Salt Lake City in September. “Bread of Affliction,” written by Matthew Greene, was the end product of the invitation, and a very entertaining one, to be sure. The play is about a Jewish professor and his Gentile wife who are planning to have Passover with the professor’s family. While the professor lectures at a university, his wife is at home with his family, who are preparing the Passover feast and telling Jewish jokes. Much of the tension in the play comes from the professor’s disapproval of his family’s Jewish jokes, which, he feels, make light of a very serious, sensitive subject.

According to Matthew Greene and director Landon Wheeler, the play began first as a concept (finding humor in the face of persecution and suffering) that was built around an amalgamation of Jewish jokes that they pulled from a variety of sources. The concept was simple but effective, and Matthew did a good job of weaving the jokes into the narrative. I enjoyed the performance quite a bit. One of the things that interested me in particular about the play was its reception. From all accounts, the play was received very well at the Society of Jewish-American and Holocaust Literature symposium, and some of the most shocking jokes got the most laughs. When shown to BYU and Provo audiences, however, the reactions were a little reticent. Non-Jewish audience members weren’t sure if they should be laughing at Jewish jokes, several of which referenced the Holocaust and anti-Semitic stereotypes in rather bitingly ironic terms. Most seemed to lighten up after a while, though, once they got used to the style of humor and realized it was okay to laugh.

The whole concept of introducing a culture through jokes about that culture is a very interesting idea, and one that works well, I think. Telling jokes is a concise–not to mention peculiarly entertaining–way of plumbing the complexities of a culture. Some of the jokes in “Bread of Affliction” were Jewish jokes poking fun at Jews, others were Jewish jokes poking fun at Gentiles, and others were Gentile jokes poking fun at Jews. Having so many perspectives presented this way, one after another, and embedded within serious conversations about the Holocaust and Passover combined with playful family banter, gave the presentation a rich layering that had me thinking well after the play was over. One of my thoughts was, how many years of history and persecution does it take for a culture to be able to laugh at themselves like that? How is it that Jews can talk about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism with such biting irony?

The line of thinking, of course, got me wondering how Mormon humor compares. What function does Mormon humor serve in Mormon culture, and has it changed over time? Additionally, how comfortable are we with sharing our jokes with people outside our faith? I recently re-listened to an interview with Mormon folklorist Eric Eliason about his book The J. Golden Kimball Stories, which was published last year. I’ve just started reading the volume, and one passage in the introduction particularly struck a chord with me:

Some Latter-day Saints might wish to be rid of or downplay the [J. Golden Kimball story] cycle because of the sometimes embarrassing lack of polish or decorum in them. J. Golden Kimball stories can stir up Mormon society’s still simmering brew of civility anxiety concerning public image and the possibility of persecution. There are, however, important reasons why Mormon culture has seen fit to generate and maintain the cycle. Moreover, insiders are often not the best judges of what will endear outsiders to them. Consider, for example, the millions of goyim whose respect and understanding for Judaism have grown through the fiction of Chaim Potok, whose Orthodox family was concerned about negative reaction when he exposed tensions within their community.

I have to admit that one of the reasons I cringe at some of the Mormon films and novels that have come out within the past several years is that I’m constantly self-conscious about manifestations of my religious culture. I tend to watch Mormon films and get caught up in the proselytizing mode of thinking: “Hmm. I wonder what non-Mormons would think about this.” It also comes into play when I get really excited about a piece: “Oh! I wish hordes of non-Mormons could see this!” It occurs to me that in general, perhaps I should be a little more relaxed and a lot more forgiving of the Mormons works I consume. I think part of the problem is that there is such a comparatively small amount of Mormon art, and an even smaller amount that seems to get popularly consumed, so every piece becomes exaggerated in its importance. I like Eric Eliason’s suggestion to lighten up. We can’t know which of our works will touch people outside of our faith, but we can be enthusiastic about sharing Mormon art with them and letting them judge for themselves. We talk a lot about how Mormon art can’t succeed if the authors’ purposes are didactic and too self-conscious. Just as importantly, Mormon art can’t succeed if Mormon audiences are didactic and too self-conscious in their consumption of Mormon art.

Anyway, thanks to Matthew Greene and the BYU Experimental Theatre for such an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of drama. Good luck on Saturday. And just for fun, here was my favorite joke from “Bread of Affliction.”

11 thoughts on ““Bread of Affliction” and Cultural Self-Consciousness”

  1. Yeah. Considering how Mormons mis-read works of culture, we shouldn’t be upset when others do the same to our works.

    Cultural self-consciousness is a marker of minority cultures, though. In some ways, the fact that it exists suggests that maybe Mormonism is an ethnic culture, after all.

  2. Loved that joke!

    I wonder if Jews are better at joking about themselves because they are better established/assimilated into American culture.

    Wish I could see the play!

  3. I don’t think other religious minorities are better at joking about themselves in the sense that they do it more often or are more clever about it. But I wonder if Mormons get a little more concerned about joking about themselves in mixed audiences. I think Laura makes a good point–that maybe we’re not as established and thus haven’t had the experience as much. Maybe Mormons will have to feel more acceptance within the larger culture before they feel comfortable exposing their quirks and foibles to outside audiences. Incidentally, I wish I had some hard data to really see how Mormons react to Mormon art instead of using my own observations as a measure.

  4. I have some first-hand experience with how Mormons react to jokes about their culture. I once attended a stand-up routine in a Provo comedy club. The comedian made a joke about
    “the three things you never see in Utah:
    (1)Utah winning a BYU-Utah Football Game (which elicited cheers), (2)The Pope and Gordon B. Hinckley eating dinner together in a restaurant (which elicited laughter); and (3) Paul H. Dunn taking a lie detector test (which was received with a shocked silence, followed by an audible gasp of horror).

    Now, depending on the level of “bite” in your sense of humor, this joke could be funny. I found it somewhat funny and chuckled a little bit (guess I am somewhat perverse), but my date was outraged and wouldn’t speak to me the rest of the evening because I was one of a few who chose to view it as a joke, rather than a slap in the face.

    I had not realized until just that moment exactly how sensistive we are as a culture, particularly when the joke comes from an outsider. Was it in poor taste? Probably so. Needless to say, the audience became angry and did not laugh at anything else the poor guy said; nor did he receive any applause at the conclusion of the event.

    My take is that we need to lighten up a little bit and laugh about ourselves more than we do. Cause we do some pretty weird stuff.

  5. Brad: Interesting experience. Thanks for sharing.

    Now I’m thinking about the experience I had seeing New York Doll with a mixed audience in San Francisco versus when I saw it with a Mormon audience at BYU. In some ways, the San Francisco audience was more respectful of the film. They didn’t laugh very much at the quirky Mormon parts, whereas the BYU audience laughed anytime the Mormon cultural elements came up, even when they were supposed to be serious, like when Arthur Kane’s ex-wife reads a passage from the Book of Mormon.

    I remember Eric Samuelsen telling me the experience he had watching States of Grace at the dollar theatre in Provo–about how the mostly-BYU-student audience laughed at ever instance of Mormon culture until about halfway through when it finally dawned on them that the film was serious, that it wasn’t a Halestorm comedy, which is probably the only only kind of Mormon film they’d seen up till then.

    I’m not sure what the significance of those experiences is, other than that cultural self-consciousness can manifest itself in a lot of different ways.

  6. Love the cultural self-consciousness point, Katherine!

    We are a very self-conscious culture and for our art to be successful we’ve got to find a way around that.

    Theric–I do think Jews are really good at joking about themselves. I’ve interviewed several Jews for the book I’m working on about Deaf Holocaust survivors and I can’t tell you how often they crack jokes–even when talking about the horrible things they’ve suffered. It’s a pretty good coping mechanism that Mormons (as a culture) haven’t quite figured out.

  7. Although the jokes in this experience of mine weren’t being told by a Mormon, they were being told, unknowingly, to Mormons.

    My high school band was in California over Easter one year on tour. We were almost exclusively LDS, so we went to a local ward before attending the service at the Crystal Cathedral. The preacher there, not knowing there were eighty Mormon kids from Utah in his audience, started off his sermon with Mormon jokes. He said that his choir was better than the tabernacle choir because it had one big advantage: it could take a coffee break. He said the Mormon choir could only drink Snapple or Tab on its breaks, which is why it was called The Mormon Taborsnapple Choir.

    Some of us laughed louder than anyone else. Some of us were horribly offended. Some of us didn’t care, but it is interesting to think about the different reactions.

  8. (3) Paul H. Dunn taking a lie detector test (which was received with a shocked silence, followed by an audible gasp of horror).

    Okay, I’m perverse. That made me howl. Comedy works when it’s based in truth.

    My take is that we need to lighten up a little bit and laugh about ourselves more than we do. Cause we do some pretty weird stuff.

    And we make mistakes; the leadership makes mistakes. It’s like there’s this big blind spot to the mistakes the general authorities make, as if they are perfect always and amen, forever and ever.

    Crystal Cathedral. The preacher there, not knowing there were eighty Mormon kids from Utah in his audience, started off his sermon with Mormon jokes.

    My only experience with preachers are of the Southern Baptist variety. They don’t joke about Mormons. There is *nothing* funny about Mormons and the threat they pose to society and humanity.

  9. I was interrupted before I could finish my last comment. I was going to say that I also remember my friend Robbie in marching band telling a joke to some members of a band from California (we were sitting near them at a competition).

    This was in response to “I heard people from Utah are weird.” Robbie said, “We’re not weird. I mean, yeah, we all have the same dad, but that doesn’t make us weird.” There were about forty-five of us.

    The kid looked like he would have believed it if the rest of us could have kept from falling out of our seats laughing.

    I actually think about that a lot. It was interesting because we didn’t know what the kid from California meant by “weird” but we all assumed it had to do with polygamy. Robbie’s joke was really funny, but not totally unexpected for us. On the other hand, the kid was really uncomfortable until he realized it was just a joke. I think he may have still been unsure about how true it was, though.

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