Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_

For those Latter-day Saints uninitiated in the intricate details of Mormon History, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet would be a complete shock to the system. Most Mormons are aware that Brigham Young was a man who many took offense to because of his frank talk, combative tongue, and indomitable will. However, many are less aware of how truly radical and assaulting he could be in his most extreme moments. Condoning and covering up (if not authorizing) moments of extreme violence. Deeply disturbing racial and gender prejudice. And his language! I’m not just talking “damns” and “hells” here… sensitive Mormons will be shocked to find a prophet of God using profanity, vulgarity, and racial slurs that they would wash their children’s mouths ten times over for using (and these were often speeches he gave in public! Or in letters that were meant for the President and Congress!).

Fortunately, I do know my Mormon History well enough not to have an honest and forthright biography like this shake the foundations of my belief system. I was familiar with the vast majority of the events and context of the history (and also knew enough to recognize moments when Turner was abridging information and knew which”side” he was taking in certain thorny historical debates). Having been the research assistant and co-writer on a play about the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, not to mention the writer of a number of other Mormon History plays that included Brigham Young as a character, I had to get to know Brigham Young pretty intimately. My persistent interest in and study of Mormon History really does make it hard for people to surprise me (I love it when antagonistic anti-Mormons try to shock and rattle me with Mormon history facts and I can tell them, “I know. And did you also know that…”).

So that background helped me in the more disturbing episodes of the very informed journey that Turner brings his readers on. However, Turner, capitalizing on the new opportunities that the Church’s more freeing attitude about its history and archives have afforded, did bring me to depths even my amateur Mormon historian experiences hadn’t made me aware of.  There were times that I had to stop, digest what I had read, and do an internal check on how it fit into my belief system (and if there was anything in that belief system I had to modify as a consequence). There were times that I was disturbed by what I had read and had to backtrack through my mind and heart and fortify my faith by connecting it to other just as real facts and context that were part of the fabric and tapestry of Mormon History. But those kind of facts can rub the soul raw after a while and leave you feeling sensitive.

Continue reading “Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_”

_The Hobbit_ Strikes a Personal Chord– Again.

My wife and I finally got the chance to see the first part of The Hobbit trilogy the other day (with two young kids, our opportunities become more rare, so having Anne’s parents in town really helped in this regard). I was wary at first. I had read a number of negative reviews and, being a lover of Tolkien’s work and the previous Lord of the Rings films, I was afraid to see the film version not live up to expectations. Lowered expectations always help when going into a film (part of why I read the critics first), and this proved to be the case here. But, even if I had higher expectations, I still believe I would have been just as moved by the film. Continue reading “_The Hobbit_ Strikes a Personal Chord– Again.”

_A Roof Overhead’s_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller

Noel Miller and Ivy Worsham-Gambier in my play A Roof Overhead

Over the course of the past several months, Noel Miller and I have become good friends. We met at a party last Spring hosted by some mutual friends in the theater department (okay, so I was crashing their cast party for Sorry, We’re Closed…but I was invited by the playwright Cody Goulder!). Noel stood out to me. I felt like the Spirit was trying to tell me something about her, so I kept her on my radar.

Our next involvement with each other was when the above mentioned Cody cast her in staged reading of my play Evening Eucalyptus which was being put on for one of classes for one of my classes for the MFA in Dramatic Writing that I’m currently working on. Not only did she have the best Australian accent, which the play required, but she had an emotional resonance which was powerful in the role. I was impressed with her as an actress and as a person. Once again, I felt the Spirit attempt to tell me something about her.

When I found out that my play A Roof Overhead was accepted at part of the next 2012 season of ASU’s student theater Binary Theatre Company, Noel was one of the first people who came into my mind to invite to be a part of the production. At first it was as a lighting designer, since she had done an excellent job in that capacity in Cody’s play Sorry, We’re Closed, but having seeing her skills as an actress in the staged reading of Evening Eucalyptus, I felt prompted the following Fall to have her audition for an acting role instead …which became a rather providential move.

Noel rocked the audition and landed the lead role of Sam Forrest. In A Roof Overhead, the character of Sam is an atheist who moves into the basement apartment underneath a family of Mormons, the Fieldings. The conflict that ensues because of their clashing cultures and belief systems is the central obstacle in the play, as both sides make major mistakes and move towards understanding, tolerance and love. It turned out that casting Noel as the atheist Sam was a good bit of casting, as Noel was an ardent atheist herself and could very much relate to and convey Sam’s character from a very real, natural place. At one point during rehearsals Noel jokingly yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what’s in my head!” It turns out Sam and Noel were working from very similar places. Continue reading “_A Roof Overhead’s_ Real Life Sam Forrest: The Baptism of Noel Miller”

Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays

Farewell to Eden_Georgiana and StephenNOTE: This was written for a final paper in my Dramatic Writing MFA Writer’s Workshop class where I was supposed to apply Anne Bogart’s book A Director Prepares to my own  work. Thus the navel gazing…

In her book A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart addresses various challenging experiences theatre artists face in creating their art. In the book she confronts Memory, Violence, Eroticism, Terror, Stereotype, Embarrassment, and Resistance. Although she writes from a director’s perspective, I found them particularly helpful from a playwright/screenwriter’s point of view as well.

Having been both a director and a writer for the theater, I have found both creative processes put me in a similar place intellectually and emotionally (especially when I’ve been a director for my own work, it just seems to be a different step of the same process). Although I will write about how all of these qualities addressed by Bogart have affected my work in future posts, I would like to focus on each of them one at a time. So first on deck for this series of essays is”¦

Memory:

In her book, Bogart states:

Theatre is about memory; it is an act of memory and description. There are plays and people and moments of history to revisit. Our cultural treasure trove is full to bursting. And the journeys will change us, make us better, bigger and more connected. We enjoy a rich, diverse and unique history and to celebrate it is to remember it. To remember it is to use it. To use it is to be true to who we are. A great deal of energy and imagination is demanded. And an interest in remembering and describing where we came from (p.39).

For me this statement from Bogart has resonance on so many levels. In my work, I’ve focused a great deal on historical drama, especially from my Mormon heritage. My intense interest in Mormon history has bled into a number of my works, reaching back as far as my high school juvenilia. Continue reading “Blinded by the Fire: Cultural Memory and the Response to My Mormon History Plays”

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”

Review: With a Title Like _Monsters & Mormons_, How Could You Not Have Fun?, Part One

It’s taking me a while to get through  Monsters & Mormons, not because it’s not super enjoyable (because it is!), but because it’s a pretty long book (which, to me, is no flaw. The upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology For Mormon Drama which I edited for Zarahemla Books is a behemoth as well). Also when I finish a short story, I feel a temporary sense of completeness, so the book doesn’t always draw me back like a novel does because I’m not left “hanging” so to speak. So I’ve decided to break up my review of Monsters and Mormons over a few different reviews so I can write while the stories are still somewhat fresh in my mind. It will also allow me to address the short stories more individually instead of as a blurred whole.

First, my overall impression of Monsters & Mormons: it’s a winner. A big winner. As some one who has lived in imaginative waters since he was a child and hasn’t been afraid to invite his religion to play in those waters with him, I totally dig projects like this. Now, I’ve never been much of a horror fan, especially when it leads to copious amounts of blood and gore. I mean, like, yuck. Not my thing. However, I do love ghost stories and supernatural monsters (I keep wanting to read some H.P. Lovecraft), and, if it doesn’t lead to too much gruesomeness, I can definitely enjoy stories like this. This is definitely not something I would suggest to some of my less adventurous or conservative thinking family and friends, but it’s something I would suggest to the imaginative Mormon who doesn’t mind mixing fantasy and religion (and I know a number of non-Mormons who would get a kick out of it!) . So let’s get to the individual stories in the first part of the collection:

Continue reading “Review: With a Title Like _Monsters & Mormons_, How Could You Not Have Fun?, Part One”

Utah’s Favorite Scrooge: Richard Wilkins Passes Into God’s Glory

Photo by Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700209340/Despite-living-in-Qatar-Richard-Wilkins-committed-to-role-as-Scrooge.html?pg=all

Richard Wilkins, who played Scrooge for 29 years at the Hale Centre Theatre in Utah, and a dedicated member of not only the theatre community in the state, but also a valiant member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has passed away. The details are reported in the Salt Lake Tribune: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/entertainment2/55356433-223/wilkins-family-law-legal.html.csp?page=2

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.

Leaves of Nauvoo: Reflections of Mormon History From my Honeymoon

The other day I came across an old mole-skin, black notebook my wife Anne had given me on my birthday when we were dating (including a poem which my friend Nate Drew put music to and which I sang to Anne after I asked her to marry me… a totally different story). Instantly knowing what it was, I reviewed it with fondness.

In its early pages are some overwrought and very loving poems I wrote for Anne. But after several pages nearly all the rest of the notebook is dedicated to things I wrote during mine and Anne’s honeymoon in Nauvoo. Those who know my play The Fading Flowing will also see my pre-occupation on David Hyrum Smith at this time, as I was in the midst of revising the play during that time.

After our wedding we went to Salt Lake City for our honeymoon for the weekend and saved up our major trip to Missouri and Illinois Mormon History sites a few months later in the late Spring. As I looked through the poems, quotes, notes, and drawings that I filled the notebook with, a gentle stirring came back to me. It was a beautiful time during mine and Anne’s early marriage and I wanted to share some of those pressed flowers of my life. This is a simpler time in my life, but a beautiful one.

Freedom’s Bonds

by Mahonri Stewart

Cramped Cold Creased–

Six men in a prison.

Saints not criminals

A prophet, not a traitor

Like their Ancient Master

Unjust Justice

afflicts their backs

and cools their lungs.

They’re fed afflicted flesh,

but they will not eat.

They wait for their Father’s feast

when, lifted from cramped dungeons,

they inherit kingdoms.

–May 3, 2005, Liberty Jail Missouri

Continue reading “Leaves of Nauvoo: Reflections of Mormon History From my Honeymoon”

“It is the Myth That Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and True Myth

Art by Liz Pulido for Zion Theatre Company
Art by Liz Pulido for Zion Theatre Company

Note: I have posted this elsewhere in the past, but this is a very important concept to me. So, honestly, I want to put it in as many places as I have power to. This is the text from a presentation I made at the Springville Library on June 21, 2012, as part of their “So You Want to Read!” series. Obviously, I was asked to speak on C.S.

Lewis.

Many people do not know that C.S. Lewis–the unapologetic Christian apologist, the author of spiritual classics such as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Till We Have Faces, and Mere Christianity –was once an avowed atheist. It was during this early period of skeptical secularism that he went through an intimate, beautiful, and spiritual transformation that led him away from his secular atheism to the road that made him become perhaps the most celebrated Christian author and thinker of the 20th century.

It was during this period of change when C.S. Lewis–who preferred the enigmatic nick name “Jack,” which I will often be calling him by, so don’t get confused–took a night time walk in the woods with two of his friends: J.R.R. Tolkien, future author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; as well as Hugo Dyson, a capable Shakespearean professor and scholar. These three would later make up the core of what would become the celebrated literary group The Inklings, but that illustrious group was still a ways off. This night they were just friends engaged in a life altering conversation that would assist Jack on the last leg of his journey away from his secular past and into his spiritual future.

But Jack wasn’t going down (or up) without a fight. Even though Jack had recently had some powerful spiritual experiences that were leading him back to a belief in God, yet he still resisted the “myth” aspect of Christianity. “Christianity may have many things going for it,” he argued to his friends, “Originality is not one of them.”

C.S. Lewis”¦ or, again, Jack as he preferred”¦ saw Christianity as no different to the other “dying god myths.” The Egyptian god Osiris, the Norse god Balder, the Greek Titan Prometheus”¦ they, too were stories of a god’s death and resurrection, and Christianity was the Johnny come lately to that kind of narrative. Jesus Christ was no different than these more ancient, imaginary gods. That was Jack’s position at the time, one which would change over the course of the evening’s walk in the woods, feeling the nighttime breeze whisper to him another answer. Continue reading ““It is the Myth That Gives Life”: C.S. Lewis and True Myth”

Binary Theatre Company’s Production of _A Roof Overhead_

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: