The BYU Writers/Dramaturgs/Actors workshop, or WDA, provides an intensive workshop experience for new plays and for new writers. I’ve taught it for years–this year, my friends and colleagues Melissa Larsen and George Nelson are running it. Typically, six plays are workshopped, three for the first half of the semester and three for the second half, culminating in two sets of staged readings. I attended two of the three first half staged readings recently, and was struck by the subject matters of the plays being workshopped.
The first play I attended is by a professional playwright and producer, Erik Orton. His new play is called State of the Union, about Thomas Kane and Brigham Young and Johnston’s army. The second play is by a student, Ariel Mitchell; it’s called A Second Birth, and is set in modern-day Afghanistan. It’s about a strange Afghan custom known as ‘bacha posh,’ in which families with only daughters raise one of them as a boy. It’s a real thing: check out http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/world/asia/21gender.html?pagewanted=all
I thought both plays were very interesting and compelling, and I thought they both needed some work. Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and even an intensive workshop experience like WDA can only accomplish so much. The staged readings were valuable, I hope, for both of these talented writers, allowing them to hear their play, and perhaps get a new perspective on strengths and weaknesses. Neither play is currently under contract for production; a staged reading is a helpful part of the process of, perhaps, producing one or both plays, maybe at BYU and maybe elsewhere.
But what was interesting to me was the way these two plays suggest where we are in Mormon drama and perhaps Mormon literature. One play is set in the LDS past, 1857-8, when Thomas Kane, a non-LDS friend of the Church with federal connections, helped mediate a dispute between the Utah territory and the federal government. Although Brigham Young was a character in the play, he’s not the main character, although certainly an interesting and compelling one. The play went to some lengths to provide a balanced and nuanced perspective on that important time in our history. Orton had clearly researched his play carefully, and although historical plays can and do take some liberties with history, I thought Orton was meticulously fair and accurate.
I think the play reflected where we are right now in LDS history. The impact of the New Mormon History movement–Leonard Arrington and Juanita Brooks et al.–has been a remarkable, perhaps even revolutionary narrative shift. Books like Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, or Walker, Turley and Leonard’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which would have been unimaginable thirty years ago, have been published with the full imprimature of the Church. State of the Union locates itself within this newer narrative.
On the other hand, Mitchell’s play reflects an increasingly sophisticated awareness of the world by faithful young LDS writers, an awareness that reflects the Church’s international focus, and is enabled by the internet. A young LDS woman sitting in her apartment in Provo can become fascinated by bacha posh, an obscure gender-bending tradition in that most traditionally gender-conscious society on earth, Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Presumably Mitchell’s interest in this subject reflects her own immersion in an American sub-culture that is, by most contemporary Western standards, pretty conservative. But her play deals with gender with remarkable insight and compassion and care. Her hero(ine) is a young Afghan woman who has been raised bacha posh. (S)he goes to school, plays soccer, has a job. Now, at sixteen, his/her parents tell him/her that (s)he is now to consider him(her)self a woman, as she’s contracted to marry. But her parents aren’t portrayed as monsters or weirdos, but as loving parents who genuinely believed they were doing the right thing for their family, culturally and economically. And in the end, the play’s heroine has embraced her new female identity.
My first reaction to the play was akin to those cartoons where characters learn something unexpected: the eyes popping out of the head, the top of the head exploding. Let’s face it, bacha posh is a seriously weird custom, especially when we think of it happening in Afghanistan, especially when basically what we know of Afghanistan comes entirely from Khaled Hosseini novels. I mean, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are amazing novels, brilliantly written– so there’s a tendency to think of them as definitive, as providing me, a Westerner, with all the information I need about that culture. Now my views are more . . . complicated. I have Ariel Mitchell to thank for that.
I don’t mean to suggest that all of Mormon literature needs to follow one of these two paths–reimagining our past, looking around at our present. I do suggest that these are two very interesting possibilities.