My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites

So this is not some snazzy, official list with criteria, rubrics, or voting committees. This is just my personal, gut-feeling-favorite Mormon Arts contributions that I have experienced this year. This also doesn’t mean that it was even published or produced in 2012… these are works/artists that I have personally encountered this year (or so).  So keep that in mind as I submit “Mahonri Stewart’s Personal Mormon Arts Favorites of 2012!” (Which may or may not become an annual tradition, depending on how lazy I am next year).

FAVORITE MORMON PLAY: MELISSA LEILANI LARSON’S MARTYRS’ CROSSING

MARTYRS' CROSSINGSo, beyond what I’ve seen my Zion Theatre Company produce this year, I haven’t had a chance to see much Mormon Drama in 2012 since I live in Arizona (kind of pathetic since I’m supposed to be the Mormon Drama expert around here). I can’t visit Utah on a whim to see the rare Mormon themed play that comes around (or, this year, New York with #MormonInChief!), but what I have done this year is read a bunch of older Mormon plays to finish my editing for Saints on Stage. Since one of those plays was produced again this year, I am choosing Martyrs’ Crossing, which has been getting great reviews at the Echo Theatre in Provo. I saw BYU’s production of the show years ago and read it again this year, and it’s as beautiful and vibrant as I remember it. Melissa is one of Mormonism’s best playwrights and, although I would  call Little Happy Secrets her best work so far, Martyrs’ Crossing is a personal favorite, much due to Mel’s beautiful writing and to my love for Jean d’Arc… who I may tackle a play about some day as well, although it would be pretty different than Mel’s take. Mel keeps beating me to the punch on stories that I love, including Jane Austen’s Persuasion and her upcoming adaptation of my all time favorite novel, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Despite that personal frustration, I can’t but help look at these works and say, “Well, at least Mel wrote it, because it’s beautiful.”

FAVORITE MORMON PLAYWRIGHT: MATTHEW GREENE

Although I haven’t seen or read it, just the fact that Matthew Greene was able to get a Mormon themed play up in major a New York fringe festival is nothing to sniff at. I’ve read both positive and negative reviews for #MormonInChief,  but I admire Matthew (who was in BYU’s WDA Workshop with me several years ago) for really jumping into the New York theater scene and progressing the cause of Mormon Drama. He’s also got an upcoming play coming soon to Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City called Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea. Matthew is getting some real traction in his career as a dramatic writer and I believe it’s well deserved. Continue reading “My 2012 Mormon Arts Favorites”

The love and hate of The Giant Joshua

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In 1941 when Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua was released, her publishers anticipated huge sales and an endorsement from Church leadership. Whipple doubted this very much. In the end—and the publisher blamed this on the advent of WWII—the book was not the breakout success New York anticipated.

The only official statement in a Church organ was John A. Widtsoe’s review in the February 1941 Improvement Era. Based on the vitriol the novel allegedly had hurled against it, I expected this review to be dripping with anger and outrage. That’s not what I found: Continue reading “The love and hate of The Giant Joshua

Bizarre and Beautiful Stories: a review of Mahonri Stewart’s new book of plays

Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.

The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.

David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.

Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.

Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.

Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).

Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.

Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.

Mahonri Stewart will be at the Springville city Library in Springville, Utah on Thursday June 21st from 7:00-8:00 pm to discuss the life and work of C.S. Lewis as part of the “So You Want to Read!” series. For more from Mahonri be sure to check out his blog, And My Soul Hungered, and his posts over at the AML blog Dawning of a Brighter Day. For more on his theater company go to www.ziontheatrecompany.com

p.s. Dear FCC, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Zarahemla Books. And, also, Mahonri is a contributor here at AMV. Take all that to mean whatever you think it should.

More Than Your Everyday Cinderella (Sarah Dunster’s _Lightning Tree_)

Maybe it was because I had just finished reading the first book of the new series, The Lunar Chronicles, when I received Sarah’s Dunster’s novel, Lightning Tree, in the mail but the tale of Magdalena Chabert is every bit a Cinderella story–and then a whole lot more.

Magdalena (Maggie) is a poor girl with a rich inner life who spends an awful lot of time mucking out chicken coops and trying to explain things in broken English. With a cold stepmother, an ineffectual father figure, and step-sisters who are by turns loving and awful, all this story needs is a glass slipper-toting fairy godmother for Maggie to get her ticket to the corn husking party for some “sparking” of her own. But Maggie has no glass slipper. Only dead parents, an uncared for younger sister, a lost brother, and violent nightmares about the suspicious death of her baby sister. Set against the backdrop of “The Cedar Incident” and the prejudices of small town pioneer Utah Lightning Tree is a dramatic story that will keep readers turning pages until every nightmare is brought to light.

Most of the strength of this novel come from the characters created by Dunster. Maggie is a pleasing blend of sarcasm, spunk, and idealism. Her little sister, Giovanna, is just the right amount of charming and exasperating. Their stepfather, Pa Alden, is both stoic and tender and the tension this creates in his character is quite winning. Ma Alden’s (Maggie’s evil stepmother) character is puzzling and contradictory–but in a way that builds tension. Even more secondary charcters, like the Holdens (the token polygamists) are surprising in their nuance. My only wish was that the bad guys, Jed and Uncle Forth, were a little more threatening early in the novel. The Cinderella set-up had me so focused on Ma Alden as the villains that the true bad guys were too unclear for me to take them seriously.

As historical fiction, this book is closer to Ann Rinaldi than Herman Wouk. Or, to put it in Mormon terms this book is closer to Gale Sears than Margaret Young/Darius Gray. All the characters in the book are fictional, except for Maggie’s backstory about the Waldensian Saints. There are no end notes or references. And while questions surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre weave in and out of the story if readers don’t have a fairly firm understanding of “The Cedar Incident” already this book won’t give them any help.This is not to say the book isn’t well-researched; it clearly is. But it is more of a period coming-of-age novel than strong historical fiction.

What really sells the book is the overarching philosophical questions–questions that push beyond the realm of a princess rising from the ashes. At one point in the story Henry (Maggie’s love interest) says to her, “One thing you need to learn, Mag. When people love you, you’re accountable to them. Time to throw away that pride of yours, because what happens to you isn’t just your affair” (p 241). Questions about pride versus self-reliance and self-righteousness versus love and family make Lightning Tree a good read and great discussion fodder. It’s your everyday Cinderella story and so much more.

Lightning Tree is available for purchase today. For more about Sarah Dunster check out her website. And, yes, I did receive a free review copy of this book.

Sketching the Prophet: Portrayals of Joseph Smith in Film

I recently re-watched the DVD of Christian Vuissa’s film Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold, which confirmed to me once again why I loved the film. I originally saw the film in a movie theater in Mesa, AZ during its limited theatrical release and I came out of the theater with a quiet, pervading sense washing over me. I left introspective and thoughtful about Joseph Smith’s early history, as well as how my role as a Mormon and my role as a playwright/screenwriter/artist interconnect. But I also thought about how absolutely refreshing it was to see a faithful Mormon portray Joseph Smith with a degree of honesty and complexity. That is too rare a quality and I commend Christian Vuissa for making a film that is both candid and faithful, showing that the two are not mutually exclusive qualities. Continue reading “Sketching the Prophet: Portrayals of Joseph Smith in Film”

_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February

Rings of the Tree Still Photo #1Zion Theater Company and Imminent Catharsis Media are presenting national award winning playwright Mahonri Stewart’s play Rings of the Tree on Friday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, February 4 at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake City; as well as Thursday, February 9, Friday the 10th, and Monday the 13th, at the Grove Theater in Pleasant Grove. Continue reading “_Rings of the Tree: A Multimedia Play_ Premieres in February”

Bright Angels & Familiars: “Sayso or Sense” by Eileen Gibbons Kump

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Before we get too deep into “Sayso or Sense” by Eileen Gibbons Kump, allow me to quote from the sixth page?

But that night she had a dream. God was conducting priesthood meeting and Grandpa and Israel and the carpenter were on the front row, hanging on every word. God said when they came to earth, men could have their choice–sayso or sense–but they couldn’t have both because that wouldn’t be fair to the women. He called a vote and Grandpa’s hand shot up for sayso before God had finished speaking. Amy awoke, sure the choice had been unanimous. By daylight she had decided that, God approving, she had no alternative but to leave the men to their folly.

Continue reading “Bright Angels & Familiars: “Sayso or Sense” by Eileen Gibbons Kump”

Writing the Hard History

Kathryn Little and Amos Omer in New Play Project's Production of _The Fading Flower_. Photo by Naoma Wilkinson.

I have written two LDS History plays, one called Friends of God (about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom) the other called The Fading Flower (about the conflict surrounding the LDS/ RLDS schism about polygamy, especially as it related to Joseph and Emma Smith’s family). I was criticized by some people for writing the plays (one family member even told me after seeing the play, that he thought I was going to go apostate). Some people thought that the plays brought up too many uncomfortable facts in Church history. They thought that presenting a less than ideal image of Church figures would be damaging to people’s faith. And, truth told, there are some people I know who struggled with both plays.
The irony, of course, is that I wrote the plays to build up faith rather than tear it down… I consider the plays to tell the faith of people who struggled, but were ultimately redeemed by those struggles, either in this life or the next. The plays clearly state God’s reality and love and show the Church’s leaders as inspired, although not perfect. I addressed hard questions, but I also believe I presented answers to those questions, if people were willing to put aside their prejudices and preconceptions. And that, more often than not, proved to be the case.
Continue reading “Writing the Hard History”

All Are Alike Unto God: A Reaction to Margaret Blair Young and Aidan Darius Gray’s _Standing On the Promises_ Series

One More River to CrossSome books move you beyond simple reading enjoyment and lift you to a higher emotional experience. Some books engage you so fully intellectually that your mind is buzzing a hundred miles per hour long after you’ve turned the last page. Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray’s Standing On the Promises series goes far beyond either of those reactions. After placing the last volume down last night, I was filled with the Spirit of God. These books about the African-American-Mormon experience spurred a powerful spiritual experience that is not easily categorized or dissected.  I originally planned on making this a more traditional, academic “review” of this beautiful series. However, after finishing the series last night, I knew I had to make this more personal, as I had a very personal experience with these books. Thus I’m calling this a “reaction,” an exploration of my journey before this book and a spiritiual topography of where the books brought me from there.

I’ve always felt very connected to the marginalized. As a child, I remember choosing a stuffed rabbit at the store that was missing its arm because I knew that no one else would buy it. I felt great love for that disadvantaged toy. As I grew older, and I became interested in comic books, outsider heroes like the X-Men, who were hated because they were different, really resonated with me. I had number of childhood friends who were minorities and, more recently, I have a number of  friends who are specifically African-American. So the subject of Civil Rights, racism, and equality have always had a strong resonance with me from the time I was a young child and realized that people were treated unkindly for the most superficial and unjust of reasons.  

While reading these books, my thoughts often turned to my African-American friends:

 I thought of Mika Julien, who was a very close friend of mine in my old singles ward. I still remember her telling me her frustrations about the attitude many members had that she should marry within her own race. She was embarassed when people would try to set her up with other black Mormons who had nothing else in common with her except the color of their skin. Continue reading “All Are Alike Unto God: A Reaction to Margaret Blair Young and Aidan Darius Gray’s _Standing On the Promises_ Series”

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. Continue reading “Margaret Blair Young’s _I Am Jane_: A Truly Important Play”