The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four

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Photo by Alisia Packard

POWERHOUSE PLAYWRIGHT

Throw in 3/4 a cube of Jane Austen. Add in equal amounts of Joss Whedon. A pinch of Aaron Sorkin. Oh, and don’t forget two cups of Joseph Smith. Stir evenly. Layer that on top of Merchant Ivory films, historical biopics, and BBC period pieces. Maybe, if you’re in the mood, fold in a little romantic comedy, but only the good stuff. Then mix and let stand. After that, throw in a lot of witty banter, contemporary flair, unflinching bravery, impressive style, moving spirituality, and really strong intelligence.  Toss it in the oven until it’s “shiny.” Take it out, let it cool, top it off with some genuine originality, sparkling dialogue, realistic plots, heart rending vulnerability, and achingly honest characters. Then let it cool and (voila!) you have the plays of Melissa Leilani Larson.

Before I ever met the witty and wonderful Melissa Leilani Larson, I was introduced to her through her plays Wake Me When Its Over (now Standing Still Standing) and Angels Unaware (now Martyrs’ Crossing). The work itself created some powerful responses in me and I have very fond memories of attending those shows. Angels Unaware, especially, re-sparked my spiritual love affair with Joan of Arc (Jean d’Arc), which originally started with my first reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Both Shaw’s and Larson’s plays have led to independent inquiry and research on my part, which I hope leads to another Joan of Arc play (or two) someday from my end, although they will be very different than either Larson’s or Shaw’s… and definitely Shakespeare’s!… take on the Maid.

From the beginning Larson has engaged my mind, softened my heart, and spurred me into action. She has made me re-think certain worldviews, and review my own, not always pure intentions. She has made me see my fellow human beings more clearly and compassionately, as well as drawing me nearer to the heart of God. I don’t know how I can give higher praise to a writer, but Larson deserves every word of it. And in her most ground-breaking play (earth shattering, more like it!) Little Happy Secrets, all of Larson’s strengths are on display. Continue reading “The Clear Voiced Individual: Melissa Leilani Larson and “Little Happy Secrets”: Reactions to Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project, Part Four”

James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three

Photo bt Vilo Elisabeth Westwood
Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

Unlike many, I do not believe a text can truly be divorced from its author. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but the more I find out about an author, the more I am fascinated and enlightened by the text. So it’s difficult for me to address a work, when I have met the author, not to bring my experiences with, or knowledge of, the author to the text. So, first, I’ll talk about the author James Goldberg, as well as his relation to New Play Project. Then I’ll address his beautiful, award-winning play, “Prodigal Son.”

JAMES GOLDBERG AND THE COMMUNAL NARRATIVE

Now I wouldn’t call James Goldberg my best friend, although we are friends, and I certainly would love to be even friendlier. Yet there seems to have even been awkward tension during a few moments. We’ve seriously disagreed a couple of occasions. And I could tell that I annoyed him on at least a dozen occurrences..

However, I do think the world of him. And I think he is one of the best and unique writers Mormonism has. We should value him and the wealth of multiculturalism he brings to his Mormon faith and writing.  It’s interesting, the more and more I find truth in other religions, the more and more I believe in Mormonism. Comparing religions and cultures highlights the Gospel tinged truths whispered into the ears of every culture. And I get the sense from James that he believes the same thing.

James Goldberg comes from Jewish and Sikh heritages, while also happening to be a card carrying Mormon. When you talk to him, he isn’t shy about his diverse background and proudly celebrates his cultural past and freely intermingles it with his cultural present, not really distinguishing them. Because he shouldn’t distinguish them. Because Mormonism embraces all truth.  That is, if we should trust Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to be adequate spokesmen for Mormonism.

This idea of intermingling one’s diverse cultural and even religious identities is wonderfully evident in a good deal of Goldberg’s work, perhaps no where I have it seen so clearly so as in his fascinating and moving “Tales of Teancum Singh Rosenburgh.” In Mormon Artist’s first Contest Issue Goldberg mentions in an interview about the story , something that struck me:

Because the stories I was writing were so short, I didn’t have time to explain all the culture in them: the Jewish holidays that were thematically connected, the immigrant groups in each story. I figured in the age of Google, smart people could look up the stuff they didn’t get and discover the extra layers in the story, like mining for gems. Understandably, many of my class members didn’t take the time to look stuff up. What surprised me, though, was that the same people who hadn’t invested their time in the story were telling me to simplify it, to explain it more in terms they could understand. Some said they felt like I wasn’t including them because I wasn’t writing in their culture and explaining anything that came from anywhere else. And I thought, these stories wouldn’t be as beautiful if I explained them. And the best readers would get less out of them.

I also thought, I have unique stories to tell because of my own life heritage. Why should I only tell stories you can already fully understand? Isn’t one purpose of fiction to expand the reader? Continue reading “James Goldberg, Communal Narratives, plus Faith Lost and Faith Born in “Prodigal Son”: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part Three”

The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two

Out of the Mount

For the actual review of the majority of the short plays in Out of the Mount (a fuller treatment on Little Happy Secrets and “Prodigal Son” will follow) , I was considering doing little mini-reviews for each short play. However, as I got caught up reading the anthology, I noticed two distinct qualities that kept reoccurring that not only expressed the nature of the volume, but the nature of New Play Project itself. So it is with those two major elements in mind that I approach this volume of the work of the remarkable New Play Project, the young and the religious.

THE YOUNG

As one reads the plays in Out of the Mount, one quickly gets the sense of the demographic of authors that these plays have been written by: New Play Project consist of young, college-aged playwrights. With the exception of Eric Samuelsen and perhaps one or two others, the majority of these writers were under 30 when they wrote these plays…most likely under 25. Most of them were single, college aged students when these plays were written and first produced, the vast majority of them hailing from Brigham Young University (with an occassional UVU student). Now this is one of the volume’s greatest strengths and its greatest limitation. A limitation, because it naturally limits the breadth of  experience that informs these works. An immense strength, because the plays are infused with the kinetic energy, the passion, the exploring bravery, and the vibrant openness that comes with being young. It also helps that, though young, these writers are smart. And talented.

Continue reading “The Young and the Religious: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 From New Play Project_, Part Two”

Reflecting on a Mormon Renaissance: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part One

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PART ONE: PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

I’ve had an interesting and fruitful relationship with New Play Project over the past several years. They have helped me produce three of my plays (including two of my favorite pieces, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun), and were excellent collaborators, critics, visionaries, and artisans.  However, although I count many of their members as dear friends, I was never in the center of the organization, but rather an occasional partner, flirting with the group on the outskirts… an outsider who occasionally came in from the cold. This put me in an odd position, where I was able to watch their inner workings, while never really being a part of them. This allowed me to be both a cheerleader and a critic. A confidante and a stranger. A partner and a rival. We had similar visions, but different paths.

A good example of this divergence of paths can be gleaned from  the beautiful anthology of New Play Project’s best plays which this series of posts is going to review and reflect on… Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project. I was originally asked to contribute one of my full length plays produced with NPP, either The Fading Flower or Swallow the Sun as part of this volume. However, I chose to opt out, as I have been in talks with a publisher to possibly publish a selection of my plays. In deference to this possible volume of my plays, I decided against being included.  My individual project took precedence for me over this superb collective collection. Which is an interesting illustration of how NPP and I have found ourselves on different trajectories the last few years (hold on, I promise, this is not simply self conscious navel gazing, there’s a reason I’m inserting myself into this narrative).

NPP is a wonderful group effort, adapting and morphing as people enter in and out of the organization. That’s their strength and their weakness…it’s the vision, the movement that is the emphasis, not the individual artists. It’s very Zion-like that way. Its roster of leaders and foot soldiers have been in constant flux since their inception, while their vision of “values driven theatre” informed by a varied range, but ultimately collective, set of Mormon beliefs.   Meanwhile, my work has been centered on, well, frankly, my own vision of Mormon beliefs and values. It’s been very artist-centric, for better or worse.

Which brings up an interesting correlation. In this volume, one of NPP’s founders, as well as one of Mormonism’s best playwrights, James Goldberg writes about the Harlem Renaissance in his essay, “Towards a Mormon Renaissance.” I’ll touch even more on this more later, as the Harlem Renaissance has been a subject that has been dear to my heart for many years, ever since I took a class on it in my early college days. But a similar division, between the movement and the individual artist, arose in the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the African-American artists were intent on being part of this larger artistic movement that was occurring in Harlem at the time, while others saw the movement as stifling their individual voices and visions.  Pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois were trying to make the African-American artistic community a cohesive unit while other artisans chaffed at what they thought was a group who were more interested in their common heritage, rather than their individual voices.  Continue reading “Reflecting on a Mormon Renaissance: Reactions to _Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project_, Part One”

Review: Coke Newell’s _On the Road to Heaven_

On the Road to HeavenWhen ordering a whole grouping of Zarahemla Books’ titles last Christmas, Coke Newell’s On the Road to Heaven was at the top of my list. Having won both the Association for M0rmon Letters Award for best novel AND the Whitney Awards’ prize for best novel proved that it had won universal praise from across the whole spectrum of Mormon writers and readers.  And every review I had read of the novel had pretty lofty praise for it. So I went in with the bar set high regarding my expectations. Coke Newell cleared that bar, and then some.

For those who are unaware, the autobiographical novel by LDS journalist and writer Coke Newell tells the story of “Kit” West (a Rocky Mountain loving name, if I ever heard one), who is a Zen believing, semi-hippie, pot smoking, vegetarian, guitar playing, hitch hiking, Colorado mountain man… who also happens to give up his life and lifestyle to follow Jesus and  join the Mormon Church. Kit, from the get go, had me invested in him. His narrative voice was engaging, his heart sincere, his principles rooted, his spirituality sublime, and his flaws beautifully human. His instinctual attraction to nature made me think of those rare moments in my life when I have been able to escape my predominantly suburban existence, and find myself in the wilderness, with millions more stars above me than I was used to and the wind swaying the mountain aspen peacefully. His inner romantic for the love of his life Annie was something that completely mirrored my own amorous strivings when I was younger. And his deep spirituality, even before his introduction to the Church, sealed my affection for this marvelous character.  He was a spiritual seeker, he was a lover, he was a poet. My kind of guy.   Continue reading “Review: Coke Newell’s _On the Road to Heaven_”

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”

The Writing Rookie #12: Realism and Artistic Convention

Here’s a somewhat belated addition to my series based on insights from writing my first novel, No Going Back. For the complete list of columns in this series, .

If art is, in part at least, the imitation of reality, it’s an imitation that’s largely bounded by and grounded in artistic convention. That’s something I’ve long been aware of from a literary/critical perspective, but writing a novel myself — and then seeing the reaction of different readers to the specific choices I made about where and how to be “realistic” — has borne that truth in on me in a particularly vivid fashion.

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie #12: Realism and Artistic Convention”

Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

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This is the third and final entry in this series. The first part of our interview was about Ms Hallstom’s novel-in-stories Bound on Earth. The second was about her editorship of the literary journal Irreantum. This third portion is about the short-story collection, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, that she edited for Zarahemla Books (review).

Dispensation:Latter-day Fiction

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Let’s start with what criteria a story had to meet to even be considered for inclusion. What were the ground rules going in to this anthology? Continue reading “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement”

How much would you pay for all fiction/poetry from Mormon journals?

I’ve been thinking about the cost of Mormon journals lately and wondering how much I’d pay per year to receive every short story and poem published during that year by Irreantum, Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah and BYU Studies. I’m not sure, so I’m going to ask all of you. Now, ignore the fact that this is incredibly unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons — not to mention that it could cannibalize full subscriptions (although that’s debatable). Here’s what I want to know: considering the number of well-edited Mormon-themed (or at least written by LDS authors) short stories, plays and poems that are published in the venues mentioned above each year, how much would you be willing to pay receive all of them in electronic form (iPhone/iPad, Android app and/or periodic [once per quarter] e-book download)?

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I’m going to guess that the market for the whole set of stories and poems is probably quite small. But since the thought occurred to me and AMV does have a (never before used) poll function, I thought I’d ask.

The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear

For the complete list of columns in this series, .

Fear is, I’ve come to realize, one of my great personal enemies as a creative writer (along with laziness). Part of this is probably just because of the kind of person I am. I suspect, though, that part of it may be endemic to the writing process.

Continue reading “The Writing Rookie #11: Overcoming Fear”