In June, I went to Manti to witness the Mormon Miracle Pageant that is put on there every year. In many ways, it was an indescribable experience (which is slightly problematic seeing as the pageant is supposed to make its way into one of my dissertation chapters). I’ve pulled together some thoughts for this post, and would be interested to hear yours.
Those of you that have been to the pageant will likely remember the proselytizing that goes on before the show. Signs had been put up on church grounds that proselytizing was not allowed. Understandable, but a tad ironic, given the LDS Church’s emphasis on missionary work and the vast resources it expends to send missionaries all over the world. It raises interesting questions about center vs. periphery and the ethics of missionary work that I would be happy to debate at some other time (or in the comments, if anyone’s interested). In any case, the signs did not help much, as there were an abundance of people (very careful to stay on public roads) wanting to engage with Mormons about the alleged false doctrine in the church. They ranged from the three or four hecklers shouting at the top of their lungs, to the somewhat bitter ex-Mormons wanting to save their former brothers and sisters, to people calmly handing out pamphlets. Of the latter group, I got the impression that many had been recruited to do their Christian duty and probably could not have told you much about the church except that it was wrong. (This went for some of the hecklers as well: Mormon doctrine was heavily misrepresented in their talk of Mormon polytheism, for example.) In his dissertation, Policing the Borders of Identity at the Mormon Miracle Pageant (2005), Kent Bean writes that the Manti pageant should be framed as a power struggle, between evangelicals, LDS, and Mormon fundamentalists. While I do not entirely agree with his characterization of the Mormon-evangelical debate, there is something to be said for the issue of power being central. I’ll come back to that.
On to the production. What I came back to time and time again while I watched the show was the flattening of Mormon history. As the people here at JI well know, I’m not a historian. But I’m familiar enough with Mormon history to raise my eyebrows when handcarts are the transportation of choice long before the trek west, or doctrine stemming from the Nauvoo years is already in place at the printing of the Book of Mormon. Or, how in the pageant version of Mormon history, Mormons were always patriotic citizens, even when persecuted. For example, when the topic of the Mormon Battalion comes around, it is patriotism, not pragmatism, that has Brigham Young relent and send soldiers. In the pageant, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson appear to Young in a vision of sorts, reminding him that the American experiment of democracy is a divine one, too valuable to be lost, and it is now up to the Mormons to save it. And while you can argue that a pageant is not necessarily the appropriate vehicle for telling accurate history, it is a particular kind of Mormonism that is being performed here. This is a Mormonism that was revealed to its people verbatim, and is not subject to the organic renewal that other faiths go through. The pageant is very clear: Mormonism has not changed, or shifted emphases, either in doctrine or practice, since its founding in 1830. No need to deal with a messy reality if it doesn’t exist, right?
And then, the racism. The costumes, where the Lamanites wear animal skins and carry what I assume to be tomahawks, and the more civilized Nephites carry swords and shields. Where the moment the Lamanites are denounced as evil is the moment they are doing a “mystical” dance in front of a spewing volcano clearly meant to evoke, however grotesque and overwrought, every image the audience has ever seen of Native Americans and/or other indigenous peoples and their sacred dances. Whether the Lamanites actually were ancestors of today’s Native Americans doesn’t matter: it is clearly meant to appeal to the idea of “the savage” in the American popular imagination, and it does so quite successfully. In that same dissertation I mentioned above, Bean recounts a childhood memory (he lived in Manti as a teen) of boys getting ready for their Lamanite roles on pageant night:
White boys entered [the tent]: reddish-brown boys emerged. The paint stained everything so once they had painted themselves up they could not … touch the building, walk on the sidewalk, or get near any of the other costumes. And when we got on the temple hill, they could not, under any circumstances, touch the temples. These “rebels” were truly untouchables. (10)
Bean seems to regard this as a harmless memory, a joke being played on the rebellious “cool kids” who signed up to be Lamanites just because they could. But I think it’s actually very telling of how the pageant performs whiteness. While all the personages are flattened–pre-recorded dialogue and the great distance between audience and actors does not allow for much subtelty in acting–the Lamanites function purely as foil to the Nephites, their dark skin marking them as evil while the Nephites’ goodness shines through. Of course, the fact that many, if not most, of the pageant attendees have identified the Lamanites as evil from the very beginning and the abundance of folklore that surrounds this topic helps cement this assocication of not white=bad.
To get back to the power issue and finally end this too-long post: yes, the Manti pageant is about power. But I would not frame it as a Mormon-evangelical power struggle, as it is clear the battle has already been won. During the pageant, Manti radiates Mormonism, and those that do not fit the mold are placed outside the narrative of miracles presented each night. This is visible in a myriad of ways: in the welcome offered only to “brothers and sisters,” in the pageant script that offers little to those not already over-familiar with the story, in the way in which whiteness is performed and made an aspirational norm. Evangelicals and Mormons may still be battling it out in other areas, but in Manti, it’s clear where one’s allegiances should lie. 
 Quotation in title from Peggy Fletcher Stack, “For 25 years Richard Olsen of Manti Has Played the Part of Mormon.” Salt Lake Tribune. 8 June 1995