Utah playwright Jenifer Nii’s “The Weird Play” unfolds with the effect of a Zen koan, a story as chameleonlike as Nii’s life.
The play takes on universal questions of romantic and religious love, anchored by the story of gender-neutral characters labeled One, Two and Three.
“‘The Weird Play’ felt like the most honest title,” Nii says. “In every way, this play is me wading into all the things I don’t do well. Love. Faith. Connecting. This play is pretty personal for me, and for me, this play is weird.”
Even before the first show at Plan-B Theatre on March 1, Nii’s play has received prestigious national recognition, earning one of only 10 inaugural Writers Alliance Grants from the Dramatists Guild Foundation. Nii credits Plan-B for the award, which splits $10,000 between the theater company and writer.
Nii’s background is as unusual as the variety in the list of her six plays, all of which have been produced at Plan-B. She’s thought to be the first Asian-American playwright to have her work produced in Utah’s professional theaters. Colleagues underscore her thoughtfulness and her perception, all embedded in the guarded privacy of her personality.
With typical humility, Nii says she has already invested the award money — in a new furnace to heat the central Salt Lake City home she shares with her pack of rescue dogs. “I have no business being in theater,” she says. “Theater has, in so many ways, saved my life. Therefore, Plan-B has saved my life. They have given me opportunities I didn’t deserve.”
A chameleonlike life • Nii, 45, was raised in Idaho Falls, the daughter of a Japan-trained physician and a father who owned a bowling alley. In that small town in the 1980s, her Japanese-American heritage felt isolating. In her teens, a date told Nii he couldn’t introduce her to his parents because of World War II. Her ethnicity seemed to be confusing to others. She was mistakenly assumed to be Korean, Chinese, Thai, Polynesian or Latina and once, memorably, asked if she was black.
Nii’s mother, who didn’t practice medicine in the United States, never spoke English comfortably. Her father’s English “was rough,” despite having been raised in Idaho. “Mostly they did not speak,” says Nii of the silent household of her childhood.
Instead, she “grew up in the library,” where librarians broke the rules to allow her to check out 3-foot-tall stacks of books at a time. “That was how I learned the language,” the writer says.
When she was 13, her mother found her a new piano teacher, and Nii fell into music. She recounts her training as a classical pianist to underscore how she’s fallen into every opportunity in her life.
“I was the opposite of a prodigy,” she says of her hard work to overcome a late start. “I spent my whole music career getting my butt kicked by 3-year-old Chinese kids, and I’m only exaggerating slightly,” she says.
In her senior year at the University of Utah, she broke her pinkie on her right hand when it was “caught between the F sharp and the G sharp while playing a Schumann etude.” She put off rehabilitation due to an upcoming piano competition, but two more broken fingers translated to tendinitis that stretched up her left arm, ending her music career.
She turned to studying social work, aiming for graduate school until her mother told her she wasn’t nice enough to be a social worker, “bless her heart,” Nii says.
A newswriting class led to an internship at the Deseret News, where she worked as a reporter for nearly a decade, eventually winning a national award for her reporting on small businesses.
Rescued by her rescue dog • In 2007, she turned to a job in corporate communications, and during what she describes as “a rough patch” in her 30s, she fell into volunteering at an animal shelter. She calls Cora, a pit bull, her “$100,000 rescue dog,” eventually sparking the story of “Ruff,” a kids’ play she wrote for Plan-B’s elementary-school tour in 2015.
For two years, Nii worked as a professional dog trainer. More recently, in a return to the refuge of her childhood, she found work at the Salt Lake Public Library, “pushing around books.” “It’s Zen to be in a place where the world is books,” she says, which has allowed her the freedom in her personal life to read and write plays.
At home, she cares for seven aging rescue dogs; nine, she says, were too many to handle. “They are why I am here,” she says. “I get dogs. I know what they’re saying to me.”
She even fell into theater in college, seemingly randomly, when a date happened to take her along as he was reviewing a U. production of Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out.” The play focuses on what happens when a woman returns home to Kentucky after a stint in prison. It wasn’t the themes as much as the form that, as she says, shook her soul. She returned to watch every show of the run, and then went home and wrote her first play.
Putting the pieces together • Nii’s diverse list of Plan-B’s productions includes a literary adaptation (2012’s “The Scarlet Letter”), a historical play (2013’s “Suffrage”), a children’s play (2015’s “Ruff”), a fully scored musical (2016’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” written with Dave Evanoff) and political monologues about race (2017’s “Damned If I Do” and “Spam”).
And now her latest play, directed by Alex Ungerman, in a co-production with Salt Lake City’s Sackerson, feels like something completely different. Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s artistic director, recalls hearing a collective sigh when the script was first read at the playwriting lab, as if every writer in the room wished she or he had written it.
“I’m always excited when a writer makes a big breakthrough like this,” says playwright Julie Jensen, who says Nii is intelligent and perceptive, as well as a fine writer. “Such demarcations in a writer’s career are important.”
Nii says she created the play out of two lists about things she doesn’t understand, ranging from the thematic, such as relationships and religion, to theatrical elements, such as stage directions and movement. “She’s taken the next step where she realizes not all dialogue is spoken and not all text is words,” Rapier says.
”She has this way of creating a language for each play, and within each play, each character has their own language,” says April Fossen, who is creating the role of Three in “The Weird Play,” after playing a polygamist’s wife in “Suffrage.”
Fossen’s character suddenly just appears onstage, and her first line is: “I’ve crash landed.” Later, when asked what she wants, Three responds: “Candy corn. An emotional support animal. Enlightenment.”
“In some ways, that feels like Jen, summed up,” Fossen says.
To friends and collaborators, it’s as if Nii thinks of herself as something apart, “as if she’s having a different human experience than the rest of us are having, somehow,” Fossen says.
“She compartmentalizes pieces of herself and doles them out when she feels safe,” Rapier says. “It’s like she’s put all these pieces of herself inside the play and she’s almost challenging you to put them back together and figure out who she is.”
In her writing, Nii says she aspires to tell better stories, rather than being motivated by professional ambition. She wants to continue writing plays about universal questions, hoping to spark the kind of after-theater conversations that will seem worth a $20 ticket. “And for me, I want to figure out a way to be kind. And we are not. And I am a part of that.”
‘The Weird Play’
When • March 1-11; 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 ($10 students with valid IDs) at planbtheatre.org or 801-355-ARTS