Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Roof Overhead Won the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Best Drama

I hope people don't mind if I'm self indulgent in relating something exciting that happened to me this weekend. My play A Roof Overhead (which was produced by my Zion Theatre Company as well as Arizona State University's student theater, Binary Theatre Company) won the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Best Drama in 2012. I also received an Honorary Lifetime Membership Award for my work with ZTC and my editorial work for the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama. For more about the Conference and who won what awards go to:

It was such a lovely weekend at the AML Conference, filled with beautiful people, fantastic presentations, and a pervasive spirituality. Here are the citations from the AML for the awards I received:


A Roof Overhead, by Mahonri Stewart, exemplifies what I like most about Mormon theatre: real Mormons, in real situations, who do their best to overcome their weaknesses, who don't always succeed in the time-frame of the play, yet the leave the audience with hope that a resolution will be forthcoming.

Like life.

The Fielding Family is the center of this story, but they are not THE story. The people who come into their lives, who interact with them through the course of the play, are the story. The play is more of an ensemble piece than a play about any single person.

Again, like life.

And the people who interact with the Fieldings? You couldn't find a more diverse (and interesting) set of characters. Sam Forest (a "woman of presence" to quote from the stage directions) is a self-proclaimed atheist seeking to rent a basement apartment from the active Latter-day Saint family, the Fieldings. Her friend, Ashera, is a Wiccan. Tyrell Howard, a young LDS African-American, the boyfriend to Naomi Fielding, in her twenties and contemplating a mission. How each of these interesting characters interacts with the Fieldings, and with each other, makes for a compelling evening of theatre.

As to be expected from a Mahonri Stewart play, the title A Roof Overhead is thematically telling. What happens under the roof of this home full of loving but flawed people is what draws us into their lives. Most, but not all, of the interaction between family members and friends is pleasant and happy, but even when characters steer us into uncomfortable areas that still challenge Church members today (like, for instance, Blacks and the Priesthood), we are presented with multiple sides of those issues in a fair and balanced manner. No one seeing this play would consider it unbalanced. The father Maxwell Fielding is fond of saying throughout the play, "It's about being fair." A Roof Overhead is nothing if not fair.

Stewart's skill at dialogue and characterization, mingled with just the right amount of humor, drama, and pathos, anchors the play--we become more than mere observers. We become members of a diverse set of characters and we, characters and audience alike, share this roof overhead.

What this play says to Mormons is, "We are not alone in the world. We need to learn to get along with others of different, or sometimes, no faith."

Like life.

 And then:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Different Set of Rules Comic Strip: Late March

So Anne is a little more pragmatic in her approach than I am...

My friend Adam Slee teaches at an arts high school where they are planning on doing one of my plays. His kids are very smart and definitely love being involved in the creative process:

So my son and I get a little intense in our playtime...

Thank goodness for streaming:

I did a whole Doctor Who series this time...

More Comic Strips When You Press the Read More Link:

Friday, March 15, 2013

False Constructions Upon a True Church: A Response to a Friend

One of my dear fellow Mormon friends lately has called me out for posting an article by BYU professor, author, and Mormon race relations scholar Margaret Blair Young. The substance of the article by Professor Young (who I very much admire on a personal level and whose scholarship and literary contributions I think are a blessing to the Church) was celebrating the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) have recently updated their scripture headings in the Doctrine and Covenants, a couple of which are very important, including this one about at the top of Official Declaration Two (which was the statement made by the Church in 1978 rescinding its previous policy of denying black people the blessings of the priesthood and the higher ordinances of the temple):

The Book of Mormon teaches that ‘all are alike unto God,’ including ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regards to race that once applied to the priesthood.
I, like Professor Young, think this is a wonderful change for the Church to make in the scripture heading. It's still not a perfect statement (for example, historical records actually do offer up some insights about where the ban came from, which history authors like Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray have written a whole series of books about black Mormon pioneer called Standing on the Promises), but I don't want to quibble too much about that. This is a beautiful thing! This is a wonderful thing! The Church is for the first time officially recognizing some of these complicated aspects of the history behind the former ban (like the fact that Joseph Smith ordained black men like Elijah Abel and Walker Lewis to the priesthood offices of Seventy and Elder and that the ban didn't come into place until the leadership of Brigham Young). The Church is recognizing that the ban was contradictory to scriptures like 2 Nephi 26:33 which the heading quotes, thus putting into question the racist folk myths that sprang up around the policy.

But in the process of celebrating and congratulating the Church, Professor Young said some things which my friend found disturbing, and which he was very bothered that I was endorsing. In giving context of how the Church could go back on their previous policies Professor Young states in the article:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Upon the Stage of a Theatre": Reflecting on Mormon Drama at the Advent of the Saints on Stage Anthology

Saints on Stage Cover copy
This is not the final cover. For one thing, Lavina Fielding Anderson was too modest to want to get the kind of official credit she deserved in helping refine and edit the text.
Christopher Bigelow (publisher), Ben Crowder (layout), and I (chief editor) have been pounding out the last minor details of the upcoming Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama being put out by Zarahemla Books. Considering that I pitched this idea to Chris several YEARS ago, I'm very excited that it is finally coming to fruition after numerous obstacles, delays, and hold ups.

As we've been going through the last motions, I've become reflective about Mormon Drama. It's an idea and a genre that I've personally invested a lot into during my experience as a playwright. When I was a young writer in middle school and early high school, I wasn't as eager to declare my Mormon faith through my writing, although it was tinged with my early spirituality. When I encountered C.S. Lewis on a major level, however, my writing took a turn towards the overtly religious. But even then, Tennessee Williams was more the tradition I was going for, not John Milton.

That all changed when I attended a lot of BYU's theatre department's productions and I encountered the work of playwrights like Eric Samuelsen, Elizabeth Hansen, and James Arrington during the 1990s. Especially Samuelsen's work had a huge impact on me, and I found myself with a deep desire implanted into me infuse more of a my faith into my writing. It may sound arrogant to say that I feel like I received a spiritual calling as a Mormon Dramatist, but I don't exactly know how else to say it. I felt compelled to invest in Mormon Drama and I'm grateful that I did.

Now not all of my work is overtly Mormon, or even religious. I've written some of my pieces with a more broad tapestry in mind, especially recently as my grad school experience has taken me out of Utah and in the midst of a different kind of audience. I aim to try and make attempts as a professional writer in the wider, secular world, and so I know Mormon stories can't be all I write about. But at the core of even my most universal of work, my Mormon spirituality can be found. It's a deep part of my world view and it shows up in my work, either subtly or very overtly.

But a part of me never wants to be divorced from my relationship with Mormon Drama, no matter what else I may do in my life or work. I am proud of my Mormon heritage, and I believe in the Church's origins. To me the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's visions, etc. ... those are all very real things. I don't consider myself a "cultural Mormon," or even a New Order Mormon. I haven't distanced myself from the Church's faith claims. Those experiences of Mormon pioneers, as well as my devout belief in Christianity and the Gospels, are infused into my personality and belief system. In one of her reviews of my plays, Mormon theatre critic Nan McCulloch once jokingly referred to me as "thoroughly Mormon Mahonri." She's not off base with that comment.

As a culture, Mormons have a long history with theatre, ranging back to when Brigham Young stepped on a staged with other Mormons in Nauvoo and acted in the play Pizarro. Young would later famously say,
[There are Christians] who are against all amusements because of the evils attendant at public places. Now it is for the saints to neither follow the traditions of the one, nor fall into the errors of the other. . . . Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it. . . . [T]he Lord understands the good and the evil. Why should not we likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do unless we understand the evil as well as the good.[1]
I've found a great deal of justification in my career and educational choices from statements like this from Young and other Mormon leaders.

But more than an institutional approval of the arts from Mormon leaders, it hits a more personal, spiritual chord within me. I don't know what my future holds as a writer... I would love to break into national television or screenwriting. Something, you know, that will really pay the bills. But wherever my left foot is, I always hope that I also have another foot planted squarely in the field of Mormon Drama.

[1] Ila Fisher Maughan, Pioneer Theatre in the Desert (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 84; and Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 289.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mormon Matters Podcast on C.S. Lewis and Mormonism

I was interviewed with the insightful Katie Langston and Blair Hodges about C.S. Lewis on the Mormon Matters podcast. Many thanks to Dan Wotherspoon for having us on the show!  Please come and enjoy a wonderful discussion with all of us who have loved and invested in C.S. Lewis' life and works: