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

_I Am Jane_ at the Covey Center for the Arts, July 22-23.
_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 (as most of the readers of A Motley Vision should know, unless they’re completely new to Mormonism) 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.

3 thoughts on “Margaret Blair Young’s _I Am Jane_: A Truly Important Play”

  1. .

    To me, the more we learn, the less palatable these facts become. Which, I think, makes it all the more important to learn more facts. I hope to see this play someday.

  2. I saw the play in Salt Lake last month and was impressed.(there was a very small crowd the night I went as it was the same night as the 7th game of the lakers-celtics playoffs)

    Thank you for your comments. I agree the script could use some more work, but I wish more latter day saints could see it.

  3. I have since read the script by itself while I’ve been formatting it to include in _Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama_… in doing so I’ve discovered that my issues with the play were not with the text itself, but with how some of the directing and acting was handled. I think that script stands really strong in how it carries itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s