Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Telling Our Own Stories: An Interview with Playwright Mahonri Stewart



by Scott Hales (bio)

Mahonri Stewart is more than a cool guy with an apocryphal Jaredite name. He's also the award-winning author of a handful of critically-acclaimed plays, including Farewell to Eden and Rings of the Tree. If you aren't already familiar with his work, you ought to be. Mahonri and his Zion Theater Company are at the forefront of Mormon theater and drama.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Mahonri (via email) about two of his plays -- The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun -- which were recently published in a single volume by Zarahemla Books. (Purchase your copy here!) Mahonri was also kind enough to share his thoughts on Joseph Smith's family, Church history, and why Mormons can't get enough of C.S. Lewis.

(Oh yeah: he also has a few things to say about the controversial Book of Mormon musical and Angels in America.)

SCOTT HALES: Tell us a little about your plays The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun. Why did you decide to have them published by Zarahemla Books, a publisher known primarily for publishing Mormon fiction?

MAHONRI STEWART: Both The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun were plays that I produced through New Play Project in Provo several years ago. Unintentionally, the two plays have some subtle similarities despite being very different plays on the surface.

The Fading Flower tells the story of Emma Smith (widow of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet) and her children, primarily her youngest son David Hyrum Smith. After Emma’s son Joseph Smith III took the invitation to lead the Reorganized branch of the Latter-day Saint movement, David joined his brother’s church and went on missions to Utah to convert us "Brighamites." Once there, David confronted a very different version of his father, which conflicted with what his mother had taught him. The play's conflict centers on this tension, and addresses how honesty (or the lack thereof) plays into the worldview of our faith.

Swallow the Sun tells the story of a young C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian author and apologist who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and (his best work) Till We Have Faces, among a lot of other incredible work. What is less known about C.S. Lewis (who actually went by Jack), was that he was once a passionate atheist. It’s his journey from atheism to Christianity that the play follows.

As to why I chose Zarahemla, I had already established a working relationship with the publisher, Chris Bigelow, when I pitched an anthology of Mormon Drama by some of Mormonism’s best playwrights that they’re publishing later this summer. Once my work was finished on that project, I pitched this book of plays, which he accepted.

Even more than that, though, I really like what Zarahemla Books is doing and what they’re publishing. They are publishing some of the best Mormon literature on the market right now. Mainstream Mormon publishers like Deseret Book definitely have their place, and of course it would be great to be picked up by a national publisher, but these particular plays (especially Fading Flower) seemed to fit well with Zarahemla’s more adventurous take on Mormon literature. Zarahemla Books is brave and honest and can take on challenging material, but they’re also intent on taking an approach that is not at odds with the Church. I'm not a dissident and I don't want to be seen as a dissident, so that was important to me as well. They were a perfect fit to my approach to the Gospel.

SH: My experience has been that many members of the LDS Church are unfamiliar with the details of Joseph Smith’s life. They know the basics, of course, like the first vision and martyrdom, but they don’t really know much about the day-to-day Joseph Smith. This extends even more so to his family, his sons and daughter, who don’t really have a place in the LDS story. What drew you to Joseph Smith’s children? How is their story relevant to Latter-day Saints?

MS: That's a rather bizarre, beautiful story, but I'll share it. I was on my LDS mission in Australia when I had this vivid dream. In the dream I saw 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 (that's why she becomes the "truth teller" in the play).

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. I wrote things down that I had no clue about, about Joseph F. Smith visiting her, about Parley P. Pratt visiting her (which ends up being Parley P. Pratt's son), things I had no clue about but which later were confirmed to be true. That morning I stumbled across an old Ensign in our apartment that had this very revealing article about Emma written by one of her descendants, Gracia N. Jones. That Ensign article was my first piece of research for the play.

When I came home from my mission I found this wonderful biography by Valeen Tippits Avery about Emma and Joseph's youngest son David Hyrum Smith. It's called From Mission to Madness: The Last Son of the Mormon Prophet. It's a brilliant, fascinating book and that's when the play began to focus on David. He has since become a personal hero of mine, although his story is not a happy one. I consider him the Mormon Hamlet. Joseph Smith prophesied to Emma that David (who she was pregnant with at the time) would make his mark in the world. This is my small way of trying to help fulfill that prophecy.

In general, though, I think people know too little about the Smith children. That's all considered separate from us, the history of the RLDS, the Community of Christ, and some people in the Church see Emma and that branch of Mormonism as a bunch of apostates. That’s not true. They were living by their principles and the light that they had and were beautiful people who I fully expect to find in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. Joseph Smith told Brigham Young that the Lord would look after his family, and I believe the Lord fulfilled that promise. I just hope that awareness can be raised in the Church about them… they were an amazing family who suffered much and achieved much.

SH: When you write a play like The Fading Flower, how obligated do you feel to the historical record? What's the relationship between the artist and history?

MS: I love history, especially Mormon history. I almost majored in history at one point in college and have been studying Mormon history since high school. Can’t get enough of it. So I’ve known for a long time that I'd write Mormon History plays and historical fiction.

But I believe a lot of writers are way too casual when writing history. They flippantly change facts, reverse positions to make a point, or conveniently forget to give the context for an action.

So I find it highly annoying when writers go beyond the tasteful bounds of artistic license and fling themselves into this historical free for all. Nine times out of ten, I think a lot of that kind of attitude has to do with politics or, worse yet, they're too lazy to research their subject properly. I feel an obligation to these people I write about. I develop a relationship with them. I try not to mess with the facts of their lives. Both The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun are deeply rooted in the historical records of these individuals.

SH: One of my professors at BYU once referred sarcastically to C.S. Lewis as the Patron Saint of BYU. Why do Mormons love C.S. Lewis so much?

MS: C.S. Lewis’s connection to Mormons is interesting. First off, being Christians ourselves, we love reading his powerful defenses of Christianity. Yet it's even deeper than that. C.S. Lewis touches on some themes that are very Mormon. There are several places where he seems to insinuate that men and women can become gods and goddesses. It’s very in keeping with Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow's teachings on the subject. "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses," Lewis said in The Weight of Glory. Those are very Mormon statements he's espousing.

Yet, in all fairness, C.S. Lewis wasn't a Mormon in this life, as many times as I'm sure he's been proxy baptized for the dead by zealous Mormons since then. But, at least in this life, he would have had some problems with the Church. The devil's argument in Perelandra about the Fall being good for mankind sounds very Mormon, and Jack is setting those arguments up as persuasive, but heretical and devilish doctrines. So he would have had some issues with The Pearl of Great Price. And he certainly had no tolerance for a religion that had a health code that prohibited alcohol and tobacco, both of which he was very fond of. Jack loved discussing with the Inklings with a mug of beer and his pipe! He said that Jesus drank wine and that was good enough for him. So yeah, he didn't always see eye to eye with us.

SH: How do Mormons respond to your work? What about non-Mormons?

MS: Oh, there’s a whole spectrum of responses! One particularly hostile reviewer recently called one of my plays "Mormon apologetics," while one of my brothers told me that he thought I was going to leave the Church after he saw one of my plays (the same play which a lot of people told me they had a spiritual experience with). With Mormons, it's a mixed bag, some thinking me too moralistic and didactic, some thinking me too honest with controversies, and some loving the spiritual nature of my work.

As to non-Mormons, surprisingly I've had less antagonism. My professional associates and non-Mormon friends have been very supportive. My first play Farewell to Eden was a Victorian British piece which had some strong Mormon characters and themes. The play won some national awards through the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival and the judges were very glowing in their assessment of my writing. Audiences during the regional festival in California were also very positive and the play was packed and got a lot of buzz.

I've found that there is no way I'm going to please everyone, though, so I just aim to be brave, true to my convictions, and open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

SH: Mormons have not always liked how they are represented in critically-acclaimed plays like Angels in America and The Book of Mormon. Can Mormons and Mormon playwrights learn anything from these plays?

MS: I have strong issues with how Mormons are portrayed in both of those plays you mentioned. I see The Book of Mormon musical as a Mormon minstrel show. The characters are broad, the satire is irresponsible, and it re-enforces stereotypes of Mormons (and Ugandans, by the way) just like minstrel shows re-enforced stereotypes of African-Americans in the 19thcentury.

However, I don’t want to dismiss the show out of hand. There's a reason it legitimately won so many Tony Awards. It's a genuinely funny show and oddly affectionate about its Mormon missionary protagonists and there are some moments of that show which are actually pretty moving. And there are points where it seems the creators almost would like something like Mormonism to be real, just because they think Mormons can be so nice and wonderful. But Matt Stone and Trey Parker think Mormonism is a bunch of bunk, that's clear. But at least their stereotypes are affectionate, and that's nice. But let's also remember, the minstrel shows were affectionate in their own way, too. There's a lot to like about that show, and a lot to be legitimately alarmed by.

As to Angels in America, that's a powerfully written set of plays. It brings in Mormonism in some very interesting and brilliant ways, especially with how the play integrates Joseph Smith's first vision as an archetype. Kushner is super talented . The play deserved the Pulitzer Prize. But let's face it, beyond the superficial understanding of Mormonism one can find from pamphlets and the New York Temple Visitor's Center, Tony Kushner doesn't have a clue about Mormonism and its culture. That much at least is painfully obvious. His Mormon characters are well rounded and compelling, but they are not characters that seem in any real ways connected to real world of Mormonism and its culture. The same can be said of The Book of Mormon musical. That's why it's important that we are able to tell our own stories, hopefully someday to a national audience. It's important because these other writers, talented as they are, get us dead wrong.

SH: What's up next for Mahonri Stewart? Any plans to write more plays about lesser-known moments in Church history? The Joseph Standing martyrdom, perhaps?

MS: Wow, I had to look that one up. Not many people can do that to me anymore. Joseph Standing would be interesting ... the persecution that Mormons have received in the Southern States is a compelling story to me, there's an interesting book out about that subject matter right now which I've wanted to look up. But, no, Joseph Standing's not on the radar, not currently. But now you've got me thinking ...

Swallow the Sun just got optioned to be made into an independent film by some great producers in Utah, Lightstone Pictures. The talks I've been having with them have been very encouraging, and if they can get the funding in place in time, I may even be able to help in the filming of it this summer while I'm on my summer break from ASU's Dramatic Writing MFA program. I'm super excited about the possibilities of making the play into a film. The screenplay has gone through a few drafts already. I really want to do some work in film and/or television and this would be my first screenwriting credit.

I'm also working on the first of a series of Mormon History novels. Which, tying back to the Church History part of your question, is something I'm very eager to do. Mormon History is a well I'll keep going back to. I want to write a play about Parley P. Pratt's martyrdom, a play about the three witnesses, Mormon history graphic novels, a Joseph Smith musical (which I'm working on with my talented composer friend Nate Drew) ... I could just go on and on and on in that vein, if I was immortal. I love Mormon history, we have one of the most compelling stories in the world, and so few people (even in the Church) realize how powerful our story really is. I believe it was the New York Times in the 19th century that called the Mormons a "nation of heroes." Our story could populate epics and intimate plays from here to eternity.

But my work will extend beyond Mormon history. I want to write some pretty mainstream novels, films, TV shows and plays. I'm in the midst of refining a script for a TV pilot currently. I also love ... LOVE ... mythology. A lot of my plays deal with world mythology, including one called Manifest which will be playing next year. I'm running my theatre company in Utah, Zion Theatre Company, from a distance while I'm in Arizona, with the essential help of some very supportive friends who are acting as producer, directors, etc. I produce my own plays with ZTC, as well as other plays from Mormon and non-Mormon writers that I think will connect with Utah audiences, including productions of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Swallow the Sun and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (adapted by the brilliant Mel Larson) this summer at the Off Broadway Theater in Salt Lake and the Castle Theater in Provo this Fall. I've always got something in my main pot and then a few other things on the back burners. I try to keep myself pretty busy.

Naoma Wilkinson photo
Mahonri Stewart is a Mormon playwright, screenwriter, producer, director, husband and father of two who is currently working towards his MFA in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University. Over a dozen of his plays have been produced and he is the recipient of several playwriting awards, including the Kennedy Center's American College Theatre Festival's National Playwriting Award (second place); the KCACTF National Selection Team Fellowship Award; the LDS Film Festival Screenwriting Award; the Ruth and Nathan Hale Comedy Playwriting Award; and the UVU Theatre Student of the Year Award. His plays, The Fading Flower and Swallow the Sun, were just published by Zarahemla Books. His screenplays of Swallow the Sun has been optioned for an independent film and he is also the executive producer for Zion Theatre Company.

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