I wrote the play I Am Jane a decade ago, and we had our premiere performance in an LDS chapel for the Genesis Group meeting. We turned the sacrament table into a deathbed and the choir seats into a pioneer camp. It was a sweet evening. Nothing professional about it, but very sweet—probably because we did have some good actors, and certainly because we were depicting the compelling, inspiring story of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a Black Mormon pioneer. For Black Mormons, her story often provides a link to Utah’s Pioneer Day celebrations. As one of the actresses said, “I used to hate pioneer day. I’d think, ‘Yeah, you had pioneer ancestors—but they CHOSE to come. My ancestors had no choice.” Jane’s story was a bridge builder.
We subsequently had more professional performances, and BYU expressed an interest in staging it for Black History Month.
That was when we got into trouble. I submitted the script, and representatives of BYU’s administration and the Religion department had some serious questions about the wisdom of doing the play as I had written it. I was inadvertently copied on a memo which raised all the questions or objections. I did make some revisions to the script and the play was shown, but the objections remain interesting to me. What is there about Jane’s story which any might see as threatening to faith?
Perhaps the most telling line in the memo was this: “Jane always saw the good in people.” That sentence began a paragraph indicating that perhaps Jane herself wouldn’t want us to depict the more painful parts of her journey, in which Mormon people had not behaved as we might wish. Wouldn’t it be better to tell the story of Jane which focused only on her courageous pioneer trek and skipped those parts wherein she met “much rebuff” in Nauvoo (the words she uses in her life story), or when a Black man was lynched in Salt Lake City “in the shadow of the temple,” as one appalled observer put it, or when, after many petitions, she was denied entrance to the temple? If Jane “always saw the good in people,” wouldn’t she prefer a niced-over (dare I say WHITE-WASHED?) play?
Anyone writing about a real historical character will immediately wrestle with stereotype and expectation—and with the temptation to portray a character who fits a particular agenda. (This is why you will never see a film about Joseph Smith in the JS Memorial Building which delves into polygamy.) In language that sounds quite flattering, we can presume to know another person rather than the version of them which we ourselves have created. Often, we are writing for our own satisfaction and even our vindication. I’ve found over and over that white descendants of slave-holding Mormon families have much different stories than do the black descendants of the enslaved.
On one occasion, after a fireside in which I had indicated that Green Flake was a slave (he’s called a “colored servant” in the memorial plaque) in the Vanguard Company of pioneers, a white Flake descendant approached me angrily. “I am a descendant of the Flake family and Green was not a slave—or if he was, it was because he wanted to be. He followed my ancestors because he wanted to, and the rest of the niggers stayed in Mississippi!” I was so stunned by his word choice that I could barely speak—and was certainly in no condition to recite Green’s own description of slavery: “You can’t even dream your own dreams if you’re a slave.”
One of my favorite philosophers, Emmanuel Levinas, writes about the habit we humans have of imposing our own egos and agendas (the “I”) upon our conceptualizations of “the other [person].” We permit ourselves to mentally finish someone else’s sentences, to reduce them to something we can—even with flattering words—easily understand and even compartmentalize. We bind ourselves to a concept of the other’s totality without recognizing that the “other” is infinitely unknowable, full of secrets and complex memories and ideas which can never belong to us. (One of Jane’s secrets is now known, but she chose to exclude it from her life story: the fact that she and her husband, Isaac, were divorced and that she even had a brief second marriage. Because those who did her proxy temple work in 1978 did not know about the divorce, having only the life story, they sealed Jane and Isaac.)
Of course I can’t write a play about Jane Manning James which will actually bring her back. I can merely study her, study the time in which she lived, and attempt some approximation. My play is, as C.S. Lewis might phrase it, a “supposal.” It is a loving one, a tribute to a heroic woman who endured almost unimaginable things, and who chose to conclude her life story with the words, “My testimony of the gospel is as strong today—nay, it is if possible stronger—than the day I was first baptized.”
The play concludes with that testimony, and then with a traditional spiritual—which I assume will be passionately sung in its upcoming run:
I don’t feel no ways tired
I’ve come to far from where I started from.
Nobody told me the road would be easy.
I don’t believe He brought me this far
Just to leave me.
The play opens on June 9th at the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City. Since I am in London and won’t see the run at the Grand, I wrote this to the cast:
Though only one person portrays Jane herself, everyone is a part of the tribute to her in this play.
In Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X, the epilogue features many people from different nations, different genders, different ages saying, “I am Malcolm X.” Each lives in the legacy and contributes a voice to the fullness of what Malcolm inspired, and what his courage motivated.
Each cast member, regardless of complexion or role, can say, “I am Jane.” Jane’s spirit needs to come into every actor. We are not so concerned with the many compliments each actor or assistant will receive at the close of the curtain as we are with how each member of the audience will be touched by Jane herself. I scripted it, but it really is her play.
I, too, am Jane–touched by her life, blessed by her words, made rich by association with others who love her, including her own progeny. My testimony of all she represents is as strong today as it was when I first read her name, some fourteen years ago.
There are a few incidents I didn’t portray in the play which she talks about in her history. One is her account of healing a young girl by the laying on of hands when even the elders had not succeeded in such an effort. Please know that many who will come to the play need healing. Some are facing difficulties which seem insurmountable to them, and which you will not know about. Jane will strengthen them. Some are living with the blight of racism, and they might not even know it. Jane will instruct them. Some are struggling in their faith–whether it’s the Mormon faith or another. Jane will bless them. Her life continues to have power. You will not lay your hands on the audience members, but Jane might. You will tell her story, and the story itself will touch their hearts.
Be blessed, by Jane herself and by the God she served so well.