Note: It is a pleasure to have Margaret Blair Young contribute to JI’s monthlong series on issues of Race and Mormonism. Margaret Blair Young has written extensively on Blacks in the western USA and particilarly Black Latter-day Saints. Much of her work has been co-authored with Darius Gray. She authored I Am Jane.
The first staged reading of I Am Jane was on the Nelke theater stage at BYU. It was the climax of a playwriting class, and met some deserved criticism. It was, as I recall, about 120 pages. Too many words. The first draft I wrote used a clichéd convention: rebellious teenager dreams about/ learns about/ re-enacts the life of a heroic ancestor and gains self-respect and courage. But such a play is more about the teen than the character whose life I wanted to explore. And I was researching it even as I was scripting the play.
After I had chiseled away at the script, I thought it ready for its debut, which happened on March 5th, 2000. The play was that month’s Genesis meeting. There was no stage, so we threw a blanket over a trellis to suggest a covered wagon, used the sacrament table for Jane’s death bed, and the clerk’s table for other scenes.
I knew there was more sculpting to do, and revised several times before our performances in Springville’s Villa Theater. During that two-week run, I played Lucy Mack Smith, who let Jane handle a bundle purportedly containing the Urim and Thummin. (This is according to Jane’s life story, which she dictated near the end of her life.)
The play met one strong criticism, resulting in an adverb change. An Institute teacher said I was too harsh on the church leaders. Yes, they had refused Jane’s requests for temple ordinances, but this was during Manifesto years, when apostasy and uncertainty threatened the Church’s progress. The leaders were caught up in defending the faith; the issue of race was barely considered.
In my script, Angus Cannon represented many leaders who had denied Jane’s poignant petitions. The Springville script instructed the actor to read his lines perfunctorily. For the next rendition, I changed the adverb to tenderly:
I called at your house last Thursday to have conversation with you concerning my future salvation. I did not explain my feelings or wishes to you. I realize my race and color and can’t expect my endowments as others who are white.
(ANGUS CANNON COMES ONSTAGE as AGNES CONTINUES WRITING.)
My race was handed down through the flood. And God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. As this is the fullness of all dispensations–is there no blessing for me? I, with my father’s family, came from Connecticut 42 years ago. I am the only one of my Father’s family that kept the faith. You know my history! According to the best of my ability, I have lived to all the requirements of the gospel.
(Lights fade out on AGNES and focus in two spots on JANE JAMES and ANGUS CANNON)
ANGUS CANNON (tenderly)
Sister Jane, You must be content with what you have!
Emma Smith came to me and asked me how I would like to be adopted to them as a child. I was so green I did not give her a decided answer, and then Joseph died. If I could be adopted to him as a child, my soul would be satisfied!
I am your servant and brother in the gospel.
Please excuse me taking the liberty of writing to you–but be a brother! Show me kindness! I think you are somewhat acquainted with me. I lived in the prophet’s family!
I enclose you your recommend properly signed, which will entitle you to enter the temple to be baptized and confirmed for your dead kindred. You must be content with this privilege, awaiting further instructions from the Lord to his servants. Angus M. Cannon–Stake President, speaking for John Taylor.
All of these lines are historically accurate, taken directly from Jane’s communications with various church leaders and their responses.
For the next show (February 2001 at BYU), I revised again and deleted my own part. No more red-headed Mother Smith. I also deleted the scene where a white bigot is berated by Jane’s son, Sylvester. (That scene was briefly re-instated for someone else’s production, but when I saw it, I knew my instincts were right and the scene needed to stay out.)
We booked a large room in the Wilkinson Center and did the play to capacity crowds. I had no idea it would be controversial. I didn’t learn that it had been for months.
A religion professor said that he had had several students come to his office in tears after seeing the play. Their testimonies had been challenged.
We requested to perform the play in 2002 as a part of Black History Month at BYU. This time, I was invited to meetings to discuss the wisdom of showing BYU students my play.
I was accidentally copied on a memo discussing the play. I have kept this memo quiet for a dozen years, but am ready to talk about it now.
After a few acknowledgments of the play’s strengths, the unnamed readers summarized their comments as follows:
Would Jane Manning James write this play using this approach? It is more negative than she seems to have been. She always saw the good in people and assumed good will. She did not dwell on the dark side of people or events. The play does not mirror her personality in our opinion.
I am writing this on February 21, 2013, the day when Pastor France Davis and President Darius Gray will meet with high school athletes to talk about why they must not use the “N” word. Why this talk? Because Tamu Smith’s son was called a N–ger word during a recent basketball game.
Tamu took the role of Jane starting in 2001. When I read her this memo, Tamu said, “See? That’s why my son was called the N word. That’s the attitude that says, ‘He didn’t mean anything bad by that word. Don’t make a big deal. Don’t get offended.’ That’s the attitude that tells us to just accept it and move on.”
The memo continues:
The play sets up a comparison between Joseph Smith and Brigham young, comparing prophets and implying that one was inspired and properly directed and the other may have been bigoted and closed. In spite of the effort to eliminate this aspect of the play it’s still there and impossible to miss.
The play will not do the good it might the way it is written. Instead of presenting the life of a truly great Saint and telling her story of faith, trials, patience, and endurance, there seems to be an almost constant commentary about the “bad” people in the Church.
I worked hard to make Brigham Young palatable to our audience. He never appears in the play, but is briefly described by Elijah Abel:
I may have been one of Joseph Smith’s best friends, but Brother Brigham hardly knew me! And when I asked if I could be sealed to my wife Mormon style, Brigham Young said such was a privilege he could not grant. Oh, he tried to comfort me. He told me the time would come when us blacks would have all the blessings we desired. He got me and other colored folks front seats in General Conference. I thought that was considerate of him. But still, we could not partake of opportunities white folks had. I’d watch them go into the endowment house, stepping inside the door like it was the easiest thing on God’s green earth.
Years later, when we tried to perform the play in a Church sponsored building, one of the critics revised my script to accommodate Mormon audiences, explaining that unsoftened words could cause a “disconnect.”
He suggested that Jane not refer to Elijah as “Elder Abel,” and offered a revision to this line, spoken by Elijah Abel:
Don’t think I’m going to be surprised by what Brigham Young say. That’s a man with a strong will and a strong tongue. He say whatever come to mind even if someone’s takin’ notes!
It would be better, he said, if we modified the last line to:
He say whatever the Spirit gives him. He’s not afraid of man. But if he say it, there must be a purpose—even if only to give us more cause to trust in the Lord.
I realize that just as the past fifteen years of working with black LDS history have sensitized me to racial images and codes, professors of religion and Church employees are sensitized to anything which could challenge tender testimonies. Such is verified in the rest of the 2001 memo:
We fear that some of the material in this play could easily become an excuse for inactivity, or an invitation to begin criticizing the brethren, or as an excuse for finding fault with others. One reader recalled the story of the Martin Handcart Company pioneer who responded to later criticism about the ill-fated decision to leave late in the year by testifying that all had been done in order and that those who endured the resulting hardships were greatly blessed for having done so. Jane Manning James did likewise and earned a great reward for her goodness and obedience. She was not bitter. She was full of faith and love. She didn’t compare prophets, but followed the one the Lord sent.
I agree that Jane was full of faith and love. That comes through in everything we know about her. I believe it comes through in my play as well. I wonder what “obedient” means in this context, though. The fact that Jane continued to petition for temple blessings even after being given a recommend to do proxy baptisms, even after being sealed by proxy as a servant to Joseph Smith, suggests that she was not a timid woman, easily submitting to whatever role she was told to play. Those leaders who mention her in their journals say that she continued petitioning, “not satisfied” with what she had been given.
The controversial elements of the play are:
1) The description of black ex-soldier Sam Joe Harvey’s 1883 lynching in Salt Lake City, which is followed by a white woman saying, “I think the mob was on par with that murderer. And for it to happen in our city–in the shadow of the temple–it don’t show a Christian feeling!” The quote is actually from Rachel Woolley Simmons’s journal, responding to the event when it happened.
2) Accepting as a fact that Elijah Abel was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood by Joseph Smith.
3) The use of the “N” word once and “picaninny” once by a Southern pioneer trying to make friends with Jane.
The memo concludes:
The play does not emphasize moving forward enough and looks back too much. Repentance and faith move us forward, not backward. I fear that this play will, over time, do more damage than it does good, even though it is intended to do good. The challenge is to rewrite it from a position of faith and good will, leaving behind the past and moving into the future.
Another critic suggested that my knowledge of Utah history could be too much for the unprepared, and included scriptural warnings from I Corinthians 8:
9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.
11 And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
12 But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
13 Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
The critic suggested that I would not want to sin against Christ by offering information audience members were unprepared for.
Included with these scriptures were quotes from Brigham Young about theater:
“Can we not even make the stage of a theatre the platform upon which to exhibit truth in all its simple beauty? We shall endeavor to make our theatrical performances a source of good, and not of evil…Theatre was intended to be a place where nothing would be seen or heard that could shock or wound the feelings of the most chaste and delicate man, woman or child—a place, in fact, where holy angels could be. No impropriety of language or gesture, nothing wicked, or that would be likely to lead to wickedness should ever be permitted there.”
Throughout all of this time, I was teaching Spanish Institute and listening to some troubling comments from my students. From one: “I was in the temple and saw all of you white people. You are so beautiful. You are the Nephites. We are the Lamanites, and we are ugly so that we will not be enticing to you Nephites.” From another: “When I was on my mission, one elder pulled up his sleeve and pointed to his skin. He said, ‘This means I was valiant in the pre-existence. Your skin is dark, so you must marry someone with dark skin and live in the station God has given you.’”
As I taught, I was every bit as devoted to building testimonies as were my various critics. I was equally devoted to dispelling hurtful myths about skin color.
I revised I Am Jane one more time before its final performances in 2011. I loved the director, Daniel Riggs, who started researching Jane’s life and came to rehearsal with an astounded statement: “Jane actually said almost all of this!” He had realized that I had used every available resource to quote Jane exactly throughout the play.
We performed it at BYU in 2011 without any objections, and then at the Mormon History Association 2011 conference, where it was warmly received. The young man who played Joseph Smith learned during the MHA conference that he was a descendant of Eliza Partridge Lyman, to whom Jane had given “two pounds of flour, it being half she had” at a time when Eliza had little food. He said, “Maybe I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jane.”
I love that recognition of our inter-connectedness.
The play ends thus:
And I am Jane. Come near to me–both of you young women. Listen. God sent me before you to preserve you. I want to say something and I want you all to hear it: My faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is as strong today–nay it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. I pay my tithes and offerings, keep the word of wisdom, I go to bed early and rise early. I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.
Come on now, Jane. It’s your time.
(JANE sits up, stretching her hands to the girls)
Receive my gift.
You’ve waited long enough, Sister.
(JANE rises and joins her family–including ISAAC.)
Now you all know that many things have changed for us since the days of this story. There’s still struggles, don’t get me wrong. But I haven’t wearied of the struggles. Have you, Jane?
Wearied? Why, I’m stronger than I been in years! Besides which, I can see like my eyes was new! All these folks are remembering me–I feel near resurrected!
Me too. In fact– (singing)
I don’t feel no ways tired
I’ve come too far
From where I started from
Nobody told me that the road would be easy
I don’t believe He bought me this far
To leave me.
I don’t feel no ways tired (Repeat)
Chorus and full cast( finale):
I don’t believe he brought me this far
I don’t believe he brought me this far
I don’t believe he brought me this far…
Just to leave me.
The history of this play can make good fodder for conversation—especially now that several non-LDS scholars are contributing to the knowledge base of Jane’s story.
How do we tell the hard stories? How do we prepare our students and our children to hear them?