This Utah historian survived the 1918 flu pandemic. What would she have thought of COVID-19?

Pygmalion’s “If This Wall Could Talk” program features reflections on “hard times” from women past and present, all depicted in an SLC mural.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new "Utah Women 2020" mural, featuring more than 200 Utah women from the past and present, was unveiled Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, on the Dinwoody Building in Salt Lake City.

People probably didn’t use the word “sheeple” when Juanita Brooks lived through the 1918 flu pandemic. But if they did, it’s not a term that Barbara Gandy would use to describe the acclaimed Utah historian.

“Don’t you dare call me a sheeple,” Gandy said sharply, as she portrayed Brooks in a video released by Pygmalion Productions earlier this month.

“If anyone knows how to speak truth to power, if anyone knows how to draw back the curtain hiding unpleasant truths,” she said, “I do.”

Known for her diligent research to nail down the truth of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brooks is among the more than 250 women from Utah’s past and present featured on the “Utah Women 2020″ mural, which was painted by artist Jann Haworth and unveiled last summer on the east side of the Dinwoody Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

Now, Pygmalion Productions — a Salt Lake City-based theater company that focuses on issues, concerns and shared experiences in the lives of women — has brought some of the faces, including Brooks’ from the mural to life in a new program called “If This Wall Could Talk.”

Pygmalion’s artistic director, Fran Pruyn — who is also featured on the mural — said her team asked six women from the present day to reflect on what COVID-19 has taught them, and what they will take away after the pandemic.

They also recruited six local female playwrights and seven actors to create scenes for six historical Utah women, portraying “those women’s point of view on their hard times and on their truths,” as they relate today, Pruyn said.

The result is a series of monologues, written and filmed on cellphones and iPads between January and March, released in a video April 7 and made free to the public at pygmalionproductions.org.

“We were trying to make it from our living rooms, just like we’re trying to live from our living rooms” during the coronavirus pandemic, Pruyn said.

Utah women highlighted in “If This Wall Could Talk”

  • Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary) - American frontierswoman, sharpshooter and raconteur

  • Maude Adams- American actress

  • Emma McVicker - Utah’s first female superintendent of schools

  • Maud May Babcock - First female member of the University of Utah faculty

  • Juanita Brooks - Utah and Latter-day Saint historian

  • London Belle (Dora B. Topham) - one of Utah’s most infamous madams

  • Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin - Actor and singer

  • Kristen Ries - M.D. and leader in HIV/AIDS treatment

  • Erin Mendenhall - Salt Lake City mayor

  • Jensie Anderson - Attorney, law professor and legal director of Rocky Mountain Innocence Center

  • Julie Jensen - Playwright

  • Linda Smith - Executive and artistic director at Repertory Dance Theatre

Historical perspectives of pandemics and protests

Writing Brooks’ monologue came easy for Debora Threedy, because Threedy has “been living with her for about five years now” while working on a play about the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

In 1857, Latter-day Saint militiamen killed a group of roughly 120 people heading to California in southwestern Utah. It’s because of Brooks’ painstaking work to uncover the truth that Utahns have the understanding of the massacre that they do today, Threedy said.

Brooks was “this extraordinary historian masquerading as a normal Mormon housewife,” according to Threedy. And nothing about her “suggested that she was capable of rattling the cages” and defying church leaders to dig into this event like she did, Threedy said.

While in character and dressed in pearls, Gandy said she played with the idea that as an academic and devout Latter-day Saint woman, Brooks “might get very angry,” but she would also have to pull herself back. At the same time, it was fun to think about what Brooks would have experienced during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and how she would view the response to the present-day coronavirus pandemic.

“I understand what you’re going through,” Gandy, as Brooks, said. “What I don’t understand is the rejection of the science. You know so much more about disease than we did then, and yet some of you think this is all a hoax.”

“... Stick with the facts,” Gandy said, as she looked down at a book. “Oh! And wear the gall-darn mask.”

(Courtesy photos) Barbara Gandy, left, and Debora Threedy. Gandy portrayed Juanita Brooks, a historian and author, in Pygmalion Productions' new program, "If This Wall Could Talk," whose monologue was written by Threedy.

Olivia Custodio and Natalie Keezer dove into the life of Belle London, one of Utah’s most infamous madams, who ran several brothels in the early 1900s.

As she figured out how to play London, Keezer said she got the sense that London was a “no-nonsense kind of person,” who wasn’t rattled easily.

While filming the piece, Keezer took breaks between lines to eat spoonfuls of pistachio ice cream, a nod to the London Ice Cream Parlor sign that served as a front for her brothel on 25th Street in Ogden.

“We all know now that those aren’t the kind of sweets I was selling,” she said in the video.

One of the interesting things Custodio said she learned while writing the monologue, was that Salt Lake City’s mayor at the time asked for London’s help in moving illicit activities to the outskirts of town.

That got Custodio thinking about authority and “who deems what is appropriate and lawful,” she said, as well as the protests against police violence in Utah and across the country last summer.

In the piece that Custodio and Keezer created, London is disgusted by the “double life” of police officers, who once visited her girls and later were part of raids to shut her business down.

“The upholders of morality, whom I’ve seen often in my brothels, suddenly break down the very doors they they used to enter with gusto,” Keezer said, as London.

Before working on “If This Wall Could Talk,” the two artists said they didn’t know much about London or some of the other historical women included.

“I think it’s really eye-opening,” Custodio said, to delve into these women’s lives.

(Courtesy photos) Natalie Keezer, left, and Olivia Custodio. Keezer portrayed Belle London, a madame who ran brothels in Utah, in Pygmalion Productions' new program, "If This Wall Could Talk," whose monologue was written by Custodio.

‘We can do hard things’

The women from today’s world included in Pygmalion’s new production were really sincere and thoughtful about how COVID-19 has affected their lives, which Pruyn said she “loved.”

The “biggest thing” that the pandemic has taught actor and singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin “is how to lose things, lose people, lose a sense of safety and self.”

At the same time, it has taught Darby-Duffin “how to get those things back,” she said, as well as “how to take care of myself” and “to respond with grace and to be honest with my feelings.” This past year has shown “we can do hard things,” she said in her segment of the production.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, Salt Lake City jazz singer and actress, sings at the Gallivan Center on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

“With COVID, we’re all in isolation together,” according to Kristen Ries, a now-retired doctor who specialized in HIV/AIDS treatment, but that isolation has affected everyone differently.

“We must not judge the effect of isolation on others,” she said. “All we can do is reach out, and be there for our fellow humans with humanity.”

Jensie Anderson always knew she was “an incredibly privileged person,” but the pandemic has really brought that “to the forefront for me,” she said.

As an attorney and legal director for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Anderson said, “I’ve watched my clients, most of whom are still incarcerated in prisons where COVID is running rampant, and who are counting on me to bring them home.”

She has also seen the people who have lost their jobs or housing during the pandemic, while Anderson said she has not had to experience any of that.

“I hope I can keep that feeling with me so that I can do more to honor my privilege and to make sure that I’m helping other people through really difficult times,” Anderson said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, “The pandemic and everything else we’ve experienced throughout the last year has shown us that we can’t go backwards. What we’ve gone through has shown us that the way things were, were not good, just or safe for everyone. And we know we can do better than that.”

She added, “As I move into my second year as mayor of Utah’s capital city, in the forefront of my mind is the goal that we come out of this pandemic, stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more just than ever before.”

(Photo courtesy of Fran Pruyn) Fran Pruyn, who is the artistic director at Pygmalion Productions, is one of the more than 250 women from the past and present featured on the “Utah Women 2020″ mural in downtown Salt Lake City.

As for how COVID-19 has affected Pygmalion Productions, Pruyn said it’s showed them there are “different ways to create.”

“We never, of course, intended to be a digital art form,” she said. “We have 20-plus years of doing live performance, and that’s what we are accustomed to doing.”

The pandemic forced them to adapt, though, since they haven’t been able to hold shows in front of a theater filled with people. And it will take some time to get to whatever the new “normal” will be, said.

In the meantime, Pruyn expects there will be more hybrid productions in the future, with a mixture of live and filmed performances.

“I think we’re just going to be learning as we go, and that’s OK,” she said.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.