On December 12, I received my copy of the two-volume Mormons and Popular Culture in the mail. know it’s not out until the 31st, but Praeger‘s the sort of classy joint that hooks the contributor up before the general population. I think this is the first time in my career I’ve received a copy of my work before the general public. . . .
One of the notable aspects of early Mormon statements about entertainment and media is the focus on discouraging the reading of novels and “light” literature, while other forms of entertainment, notably theatre, were encouraged. Brigham Young acted in Nauvoo, encouraged the early performances in Salt Lake City as early as 1853, and even promoted plays and attended the theatre himself. He announced the construction of the Salt Lake Theatre and vigorously pursued its construction until its completion in 1861.
However, by the turn of the century, Church leaders were also warning members about the theatre, as well as the nascent film industry.
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).
So, 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 forSaints 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.”
I was friends with Richard Wilkins, as well as most of the members of his family. His daughter Claire and I were especially good friends (we went to Senior Dinner Dance together and she was a great, supportive friend to me). I met his family because Richard and his wife Melany cast me in a play at the Hale Center Theater when I was in Jr. High and I can look back at that moment as a great source continual blessings since then.
I will write a more personal tribute later, but I just wanted to take a moment now to recognize this tremendous figure in the Utah Theatre Community. Richard was a beautiful human being who I loved. My heart and prayers go with his family, who I also love.
Earlier this year, Mahonri Stewart’s play A Roof Overhead received mixed reviews (see here and here) shortly after its April debut at Springville, Utah’s Little Brown Theater. While several people, including me, wrote favorably about the play, others found less to like about it. James Goldberg, for example, sharply criticized the play in a post for Dawning of a Brighter Day, citing its unsympathetic depiction of atheism and the way a certain scene “stretche[d] credulity past the breaking point.” According to James, Mahonri did “a poor job sketching the world” in the play and so “lost his informed audience in the process.”
Shortly after James’ post, Mahonri contacted me about helping him revise the play. After re-reading the script, I sent Mahonri some suggestions, which he reviewed and, in some instances, incorporated into his new draft. In the end, I think Mahonri turned out a better play than the original. The new version was performed by Arizona State University’s Binary Theatre Company in October. After the final performance, Mahonri sent me a link to a YouTube video of the new production. Here are my thoughts on it.
First, I think A Roof Overhead is a solid first attempt at contemporary Mormon drama. Mahonri’s other work is largely based in the nineteenth century or in some sort of mythical alternate reality, so his incursion into the sordid milieu of modernity is new ground for him. Overall, I think the play captures accurately the situation of some Mormons and some atheists. As I have argued since April, A Roof Overhead works best when you think of its characters as representative types rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. What they stand for is what matters. Who they are is what makes the cultural exchanges at the heart of the play work.
Last month Arizona State University’s Binary Theater (which is a student run theater which ASU oversees) produced my play A Roof Overhead, a Mormon drama that explores the private culture war that arises when an atheist Sam Forrest moves into the basement of the Fieldings, a family of Mormons.
I am putting up the recording on You Tube for a limited time. It is a recording of a play, which are infamous for being somewhat awkward things. Yet despite some sound and picture issues that are inherent with that setup, I was so pleased with this production and cast (with whom I bonded with incredibly) that I wanted to share it. It will be up for only a limited time.
A Roof Overhead was produced once before in Utah last April with my Zion Theatre Company at the Little Brown Theatre in Springville, UT. There have been some major changes in the script since the Utah version, including some significant alterations to the ending (and an additional comedic family food “fight”). The Utah cast was chiefly Mormon, but the tables were turned this time with only me, one cast member and the scenic designer being Mormons this time around (and the actress playing the atheist character Sam actually is an atheist, which I was super pleased about). It led to some beautiful experiences which I’m sure I’ll write more about at some point.
One note: Some scenes got cut off because of battery issues with the camera. The vast majority of it is there and it’s easy enough to follow. You may want to enlarge it to full screen and crank up the volume for a fuller viewing experience.
Here’s the recording of the play, for those interested:
As a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and an active member of the theatrical community, the conflict between the LGBT community and the Church is an issue that has been impossible to avoid for me. Some people’s reluctance in talking about the issue altogether has not been an option for me. I have a number of friends and loved ones (both with connections to the Church and those without) who identify themselves as somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. I mean, let’s be frank, I’m in theatre. In or out of Utah, there are always going to be many of my peers, co-workers, fellow artists and friends who are going to be gay. So it’s something I have had to face, even within my own soul and identity.
I personally know a number of gay Mormons. Many have left the faith (sometimes hostilely), feeling as if their worldview and practices are simply incompatible with the Mormon culture. Yet some have desperately tried to hang on, groping about for some middle way, whether by trying to make a heterosexual lifestyle work for them, living celibate, or hoping (sometimes beyond hope) that the Church will one day change its stance regarding gay marriage. And then there are those Mormons who feel so attached to the issue, even when they are not personally gay, that it has caused some painful soul searching of their own.
Conversely, I have also experienced some very personal and pointed prejudice directed towards me from members of the theatrical community because I am a card carrying, committed Mormon. I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached , but not practiced by certain “progressive” individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.
I have no easy answers for any of it, but I have made a study of a number of plays that have dealt with the conflict between Mormonism and homosexual lifestyles and tried to grapple with the conflict between these two cultures in the best way I can. Searching through these plays has been at times uncomfortable, often challenging (in both the positive and negative aspects of that word), and at choice moments even enlightening and inspiring. However, it’s made me doubly sensitive to how Mormons are represented in such stories, as well as tender hearted towards those who are caught between the monoliths of these cultures, especially those who identify with both. Continue reading “Tensions: Representations of Mormons in Secular Drama and Gay Identity in Mormon Drama”