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BYU play to salute early black Mormon with a nearly all black cast

Published February 23, 2014 10:12 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During the final week of Black History Month, Brigham Young University is presenting a play about a black Mormon pioneer that requires nearly all African-American actors.

The award-winning play "I Am Jane," about the life of Jane Manning James, will be performed nightly from Feb. 25 to March 1 at 7:30, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday in the Joseph F. Smith Building on the Provo campus. All characters in the play are based on historical figures, with their actual words used as often as possible.

James was a freeborn LDS convert who walked 800 miles from New York to the church's gathering place in Nauvoo, Ill., then joined the Saints on the trek west to Utah.

It was tough to find enough black actors to fill all the roles at the LDS Church-owned school, says playwright and professor Margaret Young. "We have 265 students of African lineage out of a 30,000 student body."

Why go to the trouble?

"Simply because it matters," Young writes in the play's notes, "and this year it matters even more than it has previously."

The writer notes that in December, the LDS Church posted an online essay on "Race and the LDS Priesthood," addressing the faith's previous ban on blacks holding its all-male priesthood or participating in temple rituals. The ban ended in 1978, but justifications for it continued for decades.

"Today, the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else," the church statement says. "Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."

The essay mentions James by name and says that "she was allowed to perform baptisms for the dead for her ancestors but was not allowed to participate in other ordinances."

What might the Mormon school be like, Young wonders in the notes, if the idea of skin color as a curse "had been disavowed before the Saints came West?"

Young and others involved in BYU's production, she writes, "hope that it will inspire the empathetic imagination in all who see it, that all may be edified and also challenged."

James' faith, "which saw beyond any racial distinctions," Young writes, "should mentor our faith."

Peggy Fletcher Stack