Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pioneer Story: A Short Play

So again, I had an assignment to work on an adaptation to produce a play. We could take a poem or prose to write a 5 to 8 minute play. I decided to take a story from Joanna Brooks's recent memoir Book of Mormon Girl. This is probably the closest I will ever come to writing something remotely resembling fan fiction. I do not know Dr. Brooks nor did I receive permission from her to adapt the story. I was simply touched by what she wrote and wanted to work with some themes that I found particularly striking in her experience dressing the body of her deceased grandmother. I hope on the off chance that Joanna Brooks finds out about this that it will not disappoint or disgruntle her. I'm also hoping that if you're reading this that you won't be disappointed or disgruntled. Without further ado, here is my adaptation entitled Pioneer Story.


Scene: A mortuary dressing room in Southern California. Everything inside is pink, from the seashell pink wallpaper to the mauve couch to the pink box of pink tissues resting on the faux mahogany sidetable. The room is illuminated by internal lighting; however, there should also be a sense of the afternoon sun shining through the windows. At center stage there is a gurney. A small body, covered by a white drape, rests on the gurney. A door opens and a woman enters the room as a man hold the door opened for her. She takes in the room and the body before returning to the presence of the man. She provides an appreciative nod which he returns before leaving.

The woman is in her mid-30s. She is pregnant, 2nd trimester. In addition to an expectable grief, she carries measures of both composure and trepidation. After engaging with situation of being in the room, she removes herself partly by pulling out a cell phone.


Joanna: David. Hey, honey.

[Pause]

Joanna: Yeah. Yeah. I’m doing fine. I just got to the funeral home. What’s that?

[Pause]

Joanna: No. We took different cars and traffic on the 5 was . . . well, it was the 5, so we got separated. They shouldn’t be too far behind. I’m just hanging out with Grandma Pearl til they get here. [Guilty/Apologetically] I’m sorry. I’m just . . . Yes. How is Ella doing?

[Pause]

Joanna: Okay, just don’t let my dad spoil her.

[Pause]

Joanna: Oh God. You know when they get here . . . I don’t entirely know what I’m doing.

[Pause]

Joanna: Well, David, because instead of marrying some nice Mormon boy from Sandy, Utah, I married you. [Chuckles] You know, I’ve never gone to the temple. I’ve never dressed myself in the temple clothing, much less someone else. [Groans] And for some reason, I keep thinking my mom or one of my sisters will ask me to step outside. Mom has told me it’s okay but I guess I’m expecting that this will be like when my sisters were married and I had to wait in the lobby. I’m nervous and missing Grandma Pearl.

[Pause. If she is not already closer to the body and contemplating it, she should be before continuing]

Joanna: She was a pioneer herself . . . in her own way. She, uh, she moved with her mother from Utah to Los Angeles when she was pretty young. They always took care of each other. Up until the day my great-grandmother died.

[Pause]

Joanna: I wonder if my grandmother dressed her mother. That would make sense . . . You know, when my grandmother was 8 years old and they were still living in Utah, her mom was sick the day my grandmother was going to be baptized. She had to stay in bed while her baby girl walked several blocks to get downtown so she could be baptized in the Tabernacle. Grandma Pearl dressed herself in white that day. There was some man there that baptized her; she didn’t know who he was . . . I remember she told me that it was a long and lonely walk, both ways.

[Pause]

Joanna: [Chuckles] She liked you . . . Yeah, she didn’t marry a nice Mormon boy either. [Smirks]

[Pause]

Joanna: Thanks. I love you, too. And David, don’t let my dad give Ella any funeral potatoes?

[Pause]

Joanna: Why? Because I know you love our daughter. The recipe calls for two cups of sour cream, a cup of grated cheese, a half a cup of melted butter, and then the potatoes are topped with corn flakes. I don’t want Ella having a heart attack before she’s five.

[Pause]

Joanna: Okay. I’ll see you in a little while.

[Hangs up phone. Removes part of the drape to uncover Pearl’s face. She is an elderly woman and we can see her shoulders are bare. She should not be wearing any clothes underneath the drape. Joanna moves the drape to hold Pearl’s hand and pats Pearl’s hair. Joanna returns Pearl’s hand under the drape and replaces the drape over Pearl’s head. The door opens and the man admits three women: one woman in her 60s and two around Joanna’s age. Joanna’s sisters tout large purses and don gigantic southern California sunglasses. One carries a 64 oz mug filled with Diet Coke. Joanna moves forward to hug her sisters and her mother. Their mother gives an appreciative nod to the man much as Joanna had done earlier. Again, he acknowledges the sentiment before leaving. Mother motions her daughters towards her. They gather, fold their arms, and bow their heads in prayer]

Mother: Oh God, Help us to do this service for Pearl. She has blessed our lives but cannot now reach the buttons of her dress. Help us prepare this for her. We say this in the name of our Savior, Amen.

All: Amen.

[Mother opens her large purse and pulls out a number of plastic bags containing white clothes. As she pulls them out, she distributes them to her daughters. She pulls out a pair of scissors and begins to open the bags. When all of the bags have been cut open she returns the scissors to her purse and places the purse on the ground. The women surround the gurney. Mother pulls the drape back down to reveal Pearl’s head and shoulders.]

Mother: Hello, Pearl.

[Mother continues to remove the rest of the drape. Joanna has positioned herself near Pearl’s feet so she watches as Mother and Sisters lift Pearl’s naked torso up to slip a white garment over Pearl’s head and pulling her arms through the sleeves. As the Sisters lay Pearl’s torso back down, Mother moves to hold Joanna’s hand. Joanna and Mother lift Pearl’s legs (one at a time) for the Sister to slide a bottom garment onto Pearl. They lift Pearl so they can move the garment up to her hips. The women continue by moving Pearl in similar ways in order to put a white dress on Pearl. Joanna begins to step back as Mother and Sisters begin to remove ceremonial clothes from bags. As Joanna steps back, the lights around Pearl, Mother, Sisters, and the gurney fade to black. As Joanna looks on, a Woman enters behind her]

Woman: Joanna, your spirit is like this hand.

[Woman holds up her hand and wiggles her fingers]

Woman: Your spirit has always existed. When you were born, your spirit went into your body and a veil of forgetfulness was drawn across your mind.

[Woman slips her hand into a glove]

Woman: When you die your spirit will leave your body and join the spirits of your ancestors on the other side of the veil.

[Woman withdraws her hand from the glove and places it in Joanna’s hand]

Woman: Let death be made as small and familiar to you as changing clothes, and this life a moment of forgetfulness on a long, long thread of being.

Joanna: When she was alive, I never saw my grandmother naked.  Now I see that she has parts like mine, hips like mine, hair like mine.  Her hands. I felt the pads on her thumbs, worn softly impermeable against the steady press of paring knives in the kitchen. Her toes were contorted by four decades of fashionable women’s shoes. I placed the white stockings on her feet, the nylons over her calves.

[Pause]

Joanna: I gave her shoes for a long and lonely walk.

Woman: The Mormonism of your grandmothers: the small acts of care.

Joanna: Sometimes even in my own tradition I feel a long way from home.

Woman: Whither thou goest…

Joanna: I will go. And where thou lodgest…

Woman: I will lodge. Thy people…

Joanna: Shall be my people. And thy God...

Woman: My God. Where will you walk?

Joanna: I am not an enemy. I will not be disappeared from the faith of my ancestors. I am the descendant of Mormon pioneers. I will keep on crossing as many plains as this life puts in front of me. I am a Mormon girl.

Woman: May no harm come to your hands. May no harm come to your eyes. May no harm come to your voice. May no harm come to your heart.

[Woman leaves. Light returns on Mother, Sisters, and Pearl. Pearl is in a casket]

Mother: You look beautiful, Pearl.

[Joanna rejoins her Mother and Sisters. They clasp hands and begin to sing a hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints”]

All: Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell -
All is well! All is well!

We'll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints, will be blessed.
We'll make the air, with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we'll tell -
All is well! All is well!

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