Saturday, September 27, 2014

For and In Behalf Of: In the Beginning... (Part 1)

Hello friends. So I have recently written a script for a performance piece that I am currently organizing to be staged twice by the end of this year. First, in a scaled down version, at an academic theatre conference in Baltimore. And then again at the University of Maryland towards the end of December. I figured since there are some people who would see this piece if they could but will not be able to, so this is a chance for some to read it. Also, last year I posted part of a paper I wrote on race in The Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti. That paper not only helped me get accepted into a summer fellowship program but also resulted in me receiving a graduate student paper award. So feel free to leave comments. It's a script in progress so is subject to change. I would appreciate feedback as I work on it. I will divide it according to scenes, and quite honestly this runs long so scenes will be divided too. But yes, here is the first part for my new script For and In Behalf Of.

Oh and here's the dramatis personae

A: Male
B: Female
C: Male
D: Female
E: Male
F: Female

For costume design, while Allan should appear in business casual academic conference attire (preferably with a cardigan and tie), all other characters should wear all white. The type of slacks, shirts, skirts, blouses, and dresses Mormons change into at the temple. As they take on various roles, a small add-on like a scarf, tie, or shawl should be sufficient.

For set design, the stage should be bare for the exception of some form of baptismal font at either center/center stage or center and upstage. Either a back wall or large screen should be used for projections.

I. In the Beginning…

[Prelude music fades. House lights drop. Projection reads: “I. In the Beginning…” Lights rise on two figures who are both dressed in white clothes]

A: “My son”

B: Says the Christian father

A: “you should not attend a theatre, for there the wicked assemble; nor a ball-room, for there the wicked assemble; you should not be found playing a ball, for the sinner does that.”

B: Hundreds of like admonitions are thus given, and so we have been thus traditioned; but it is our privilege and our duty to scan all the works of man from the days of Adam until now, and thereby learn what man was made for, what he is capable of performing, and how far his wisdom can reach into the heavens, and to know the evil and the good.

[Light fades on A. A exits]

B: Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth.

[Projection reads: “Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented […] the weakness and follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth” —Brigham Young, on the dedication of the Salt Lake Theatre, 1862”]

B: Brigham Young, 1862.

[Light and projection fade as B exits. Projection returns to reading: “In the Beginning…” Lights rise as Allan enters]

Allan: I am card-carrying Mormon; the thing is the card’s expired. I was born of goodly parents who raised me in Florida and taught me the faith of their parents. My father blessed me as an infant, giving me the name of his father. My father baptized me into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was eight. Dressed in white, we stepped into a font at a church building. He invoked my name and that of God. “Allan Nathan Davis, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” Then he buried me in the water.

Four years later, my father placed his hands upon my head and ordained me, conferring the priesthood, the authority of God. I followed the plan pretty well: ordained a deacon when I was 12, a teacher when I was 14, a priest when I was 16, and an elder when I was 18; received my temple endowment and served a mission when I was 19; hell, I graduated from Brigham Young University twice by the time I was 25.

But it was all the way back when I turned eight, I was taught, that a part of me would die: my innocence. Before this age of accountability, any personal imperfection or mistake was swallowed up in Christ. But at eight, I would be capable of discerning right from wrong. So I received one of the most precious gifts God could bestow: agency—the power to choose. As a child of God, I had already received an amazing gift: my physical body, something that made me like my Heavenly Father and my Heavenly Mother. I was alive on Earth to gain a physical body and to learn how to use it, how to endure it, and how to enjoy it. But at eight, I was given a related gift: the capacity to choose—the weakness and follies of man OR the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. My baptism would be my first chance to exercise my choice to make a covenant with God.

As my father lowered me into the water, the innocent child that I was died. I could not breathe and darkness engulfed everything. But he raised me up and I was born again into a life of responsibility. Resurrected into agency. It is a ritual that I have seen repeatedly: siblings, my niece, converts I taught. But throughout my life, I witnessed the rehearsal of this ceremony most in temples, when Mormon youth stood in proxy for the dead.

[Projection: The Last Word with Lawerence O’Donnell, Holocaust Victims and Elie Weisel, 0:00 - 0:32] 

Allan: It’s not a practice without its critics. Mormons take on the identities of others. They represent others and are baptized for them. This violates the agency, the convictions, and the cultural memory of the dead. The wound is significantly poignant when we are discussing those that died for their religious beliefs. What gives Mormons the right to act in the place of others against their will?

And yet, at the risk of sounding like an apologist, I feel it necessary to highlight for Mormons, the baptism does not destroy agency, but creates it. Unlike most Protestant or Catholic perspectives on baptism, the event itself is not immediately efficacious. When an infant is baptized Catholic, in the worldview of the faithful, that child is thenceforth Catholic. But for Mormons, a person has to choose to accept the work, that ordinance. In other words, Mormons believe they need to be baptized for others not to make the dead Mormon, but to give them access to the choice to be Mormon if they so desire

This is not to dismiss the critique of the practice, but to emphasize that both sides are speaking in the same language. Choice. Will. Self-determination. Agency. It’s important to the critics and the proponents. Both cherish and champion the principle. But what does the ritual do to the memory of the dead? I still want to and very often do see beauty in a people that have an impulse to honor and remember the dead. But it makes me wonder how anything we do to remember the dead alters them for us.

And like I said, earlier, while I have my card, it’s expired. And lest there be any confusion I am not speaking metaphorically; the card-carrying activity is not just a figure of speech. I actually have my card in my wallet if you would like to see it.

[Allan removes wallet from back pocket and takes out temple recommend]

Allan: This is my temple recommend. Once upon a time, it would have let me into any LDS temple in the world. The temple in Orlando, Florida I grew up going to as a teenager. The iconic granite temple in Salt Lake City. A more modest one in Medford, Oregon. That’s the one illustrated on the cover of my recommend holder. Even DC, the one I assume most of you are familiar with. Visible from the Beltway; it would be that giant white edifice my roommate refers to as the “Fortress of Solitude.”

[Enter C]

Allan: It’s very simple, really. When one has a recommend, he or she simply goes inside the temple, approaches a reception desk, and hands a temple worker his or her card.

[Allan hands C his temple recommend. C who begins to look it over]

Allan: The temple worker takes the recommend. He scans the barcode printed on the recommend, like a library card. Come to think of it, it’s like when I go to research at the Library of Congress.

[C pantomimes scanning the card]

Allan: After scanning scans the card, the temple worker hands the card back, shakes your hand, and generally says something like…

C: [shaking Allan’s hand] Welcome to the temple, Brother Davis.

Allan: I can honestly tell you that of the many times I went through that routine to get in, it never felt rote. It was a sincere welcome every time. Entrance into the House of the Lord—a place of contemplation, of revelation, of peace.

[C exits]

Allan: The recommend lasts for two years, at which point it needs to be renewed. But it has almost been that long since I have let it expire. Buried in my wallet, but always with me. When I was a teenager, if I wanted to go to the temple I had to have an ecclesiastical interview for every temple trip. This let me get a limited use recommend. Recently, I found one of these training wheel recommends.

[Allan pulls out paper recommend]

Allan: It’s flimsier. The other recommend permitted access to the entire temple, allowing me to participate in all of the ceremonies that take place there: the initiatories which includes washings and anointings; the endowment which is a lengthy ceremony built around an allegorical dramatization of the story of Adam and Eve; and then sealings where couples and families can be bound together as a family unit for eternity. This one, however, only allows teenagers or recent converts to go into the basement level of the temples to participate in the baptisms for the dead.

It’s some nice architectural symbolism: the baptismal font is subterranean, buried in the earth like those it is designed to serve. And these fonts, they are pretty large, usually elevated and stationed on top of the backs of twelve oxen-shaped statues. I’ve taken some poetic license. Each ox represents one of the twelve tribes of Israel and they face the four corners of the world to signify the gathering of Israel, the entire human family, on both sides of the veil of death.

[Enter A, B, C, D, E and F. C enters the font. A and E stand upstage from font, one on each side. D and F both stand upstage center of the font, holding towels. B waits to enter font.]

Allan:  When Mormon teenagers arrive, they go downstairs and change into white clothes. They sit on the edge of the font to wait their turn. It is a space of reverence, of stillness. If there are conversations, they are generally whispered, covered by the sound of splashing water. There are four adult men and two or three adult women present. Of the men, one officiates the baptism, one serves as a record keeper, and the last two serve as witnesses to make sure all goes correctly with each baptism. If something goes wrong—a missed word or a stray toe popping out of the water—the ordinance is repeated. The women stand to help the proxies into and out of the font, providing towels to dry off.

[B gets into font with assistance of D]

Allan: When it is your turn as proxy, as you enter the water, the person performing the baptism usually asks for a confirmation of your last name.

C: Sister O’Brian, right?

B: Yeah.

Allan: The baptizer places the proxy’s left hand on his left forearm and their right hand in his left hand. One hand for support for when it’s time to be pulled out of the water and one hand primed to hold your nose. The baptizer then raises his right hand to the square, and says:

C: Sister O’Brian, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of…

Allan: He would then read the name of a deceased individual that’s projected on a little screen in front of him. Something like…

C: Jane Doe, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[C baptizes B. A and E approve of ritual]

Allan: This is repeated another eight or twelve times. It depends on how many people came on the temple trip and if someone had been doing family history recently.

[F and D help C and B dry off. All exit.]

Allan: When I was home recently, I attended the funeral of a friend. I noticed a lot of things. I had spent my summer writing this piece about what any of us do with the memories of our dead loved ones. And in my mind that meant dealing with my grandparents. But I woke up one morning in July, rolled over in the dark, and checked my email on my phone. Before I understood what was going on, I was reading a message from my friend Cory. Emma, his sister-in-law, the wife of one of my best friends in college had died. Emma was 26 years old, pregnant with her second child. She wasn’t elderly, battling a disease, or a victim of an accident. Her heart just stopped. And it just doesn’t make sense.

When I attended Emma’s memorial services, I noticed how much we bring stories to the dead. Stories of their lives. And stories about a much larger cosmology. At Emma’s services, there was an ecclesiastical leader who shared remarks about the plan of salvation: what Mormons see as God’s restored explanation of where we all come from, why we are here, where we are going, and in terms of something like a funeral some sense of why unexplainable shit happens or how you deal with it. I have trouble believing the literality of the story, but you know what? It’s a beautiful vision of humanity, of God, of life. Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy. The story is healing. Stories and memories of our dead loved ones—it’s what we do.

(Scene 1 continues on another page. Click here to continue to it.)