Reclaiming our stories, redux!
Remember my discussion on reclaiming our stories? About how we should take every opportunity to tell our own experiences, instead of standing by and letting the church invent the â€œapostateâ€ narrative, according to its own agenda…?
Well there are some natural conflicts when it comes to being sure that your group is portrayed fairly and accurately. The biggest one is that stories have lots of people in them. And while you’re in righteous pursuit of portraying your own group right, you may simultaneously be portraying someone else unfairly.
I just heard that LDS playwright Mahonri Stewart wrote a new play, set in modern times, about a conflict between a Mormon family and an atheist. From a quick perusal of some posts about the play, I gather that the atheist is the villain ([the actress playing the atheist] “was forced to make a character who does some pretty mean-spirited things seem socially acceptable and even occasionally endearing”).
Now, this is par for the course, and I wouldn’t expect any different from a faithful Mormon playwright writing a faith-promoting Mormon play. I mean, it’d be cool if a faithful Mormon would write a play featuring an atheist who’s a friendly, laid-back, mild-mannered mom like me — but it ain’t gonna happen, so c’est la vie.
The thing about Mahonri Stewart, however, is that he’s one of the most outspoken people in the “only faithful Mormons should be writing about Mormons” camp. He’s especially prolific in complaining about “Angels in America”:
Angels In America is a political piece set in the 80s attacking Reagan-style conservatism and the religious right. It tries to raise awareness of the plight of the homosexual, especially in reference to AIDS. And it often uses Mormon characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause.
very few of the Mormon characters actually seem, well, Mormon. Even accounting for the fact that Mormons come from many different backgrounds and have struggles and vices just like any other person, there is something â€œoffâ€ about Kushnerâ€™s portrayal of Mormonism through characters like Joe and Harper Pitt.
I have personally experienced a double standard in this regard, where tolerance was only preached, but not practiced by certain â€œprogressiveâ€ individuals when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed their own.
Whether or not you agree with his assessment of “Angels in America” (or of “The Book of Mormon” (the musical)), he’s right that it’s reasonable to expect a fair portrait.
Given these statements of principle, I would expect that — to show people how it’s done — in his own work he’ll be doubly careful about this point, right? I certainly wouldn’t expect to see a “double standard in this regard” where “when it came to views or lifestyles that opposed [his] own” he would use those “characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause.” Right?
So let’s see if he holds himself up to this high standard in his portrait of an atheist:
So far I’ve only watched up to the part where the atheist badgers the Mormon girl into explaining about her visions (as a set-up so she can tell the Mormon how she thinks visions are a bunch of hooey), and then she explains how she decided not to believe in God because God is unfair to her gay friend who loved Jesus so much. Mmmmmkaaaaaaayyyy…..
Wow!!! I couldn’t bring myself to watch past the point mentioned in the OP, and now I’m glad I spared myself the horror.
I just read a new review of the above play, and I am astonished to learn how much worse it gets:
James Goldberg’s review of my play is not a good guide to the play, as it flagrantly misinterprets a good deal of it. Here’s my response to the kind of charges you are making against the play:
@2 Hi Mahonri — Thanks for stopping by to tell us your side of the story.
So, from your linked response, I see that you took out the most egregious bit, namely the part where Abish has been [accidentally] killed by atheist peers after taunting (inspired by Samâ€™s editorial) got out of hand. Good.
I think that it is very important — when writing about people whose life experience is different from your own — to do your homework. That means not only getting the details and lingo right, but also using your empathy to really make an effort to understand that person’s perspective. It helps to read stories (memoirs, fiction, blogs, etc.) by members of the group.
(By “you” here, I mean authors in general.)
I agree with you that non-Mormon writers who include Mormon characters should make a point to do their homework in order to make their portrait reasonably realistic and accurate. It’s not just a question of fairness — it makes the work better.
Do you agree that the same holds for writers who include characters from other misunderstood and often maligned minorities? Like atheist characters, for example…?
From your linked piece, I would say that you do. On principle, at least. I can see that you have made some effort to understand atheists — which is of key importance — but I’m not sure you’re quite there.
Yes, I would say that it’s not surprising to hear that you’ve received dismissive insults about your religion. But to use the term “militant” (with its connotations of violence) and to write a scene where these taunts escalate so naturally into violence that kills (even accidentally) is kind of tone-deaf in terms of a serious portrait of atheists.
Here‘s an example from the posts that showed up in my reader just yesterday. This is from a very popular atheist blogger who is among the most famous for having no hesitation about calling religion stupid:
One of Goldberg’s complaints is that was that nobody in your play seemed particularly surprised to see atheist teens engaging in hate-based violence. Obviously it shouldn’t be off limits for an author to write a fictional scene or character that is atypical. But as an author you can toss in real-life-style clues that let the audience know that you the author don’t think that your character or scenario is typical.
Thanks for the cordial response! I’ll try my best to respond appropriately.
Again, don’t quote Goldberg’s complaints too much to me. As much as I personally admire James and his work (for example, The Five books of Jesus is one of the best wrought books to be written by a Mormon for quite some time), we have our disagreements. For example, I was disturbed by James’ hostile AML paper railing against Joanna Brooks and Mormon feminists– my wife and I consider ourselves feminists, so I recognized the irony of his accusations about me alienating atheists, when I felt quite alienated from his comments about Mormon feminists (also see this post of his about feminism and the Church: http://mormonmidrashim.blogspot.com/search?q=feminist).
Most atheists would also have difficulty with James’ position against gay marriage, despite its complexities that set him apart at least from most religious diatribes on the subject (http://mormonmidrashim.blogspot.com/2012/03/four-part-series-on-gay-marriage-and.html). I don’t say this to slander James because of his beliefs, he argues them eloquently even when I disagree with them. He is perfectly welcome to them and argues them better than most. Rather, I say this because the irony is not lost on me that he tried to color me as a religious extremist when I feel like I am rather much more liberal than he is on a number of subjects.
Like I have stated, James completely misunderstood my play and completely ignored the ending which put the emphasis on reconciliation, not division, between the religious and irreligious. The fact that it did not take that very blatant ending into account of his analysis boggled my mind, as it flatly contradicted what he was saying about me and the play.
As to the term “militant atheist,” I thought it was safe to use that term to describe that particular brand of atheism, since Richard Dawkins uses it himself: “No, what I want to urge upon you instead, what I want to urge upon you is militant atheism” (http://keentalks.com/militant-atheism/). He seems to wear it as a badge of honor, much like I do the term Mormon, even though it originally had more derogatory roots. Yet if there is a better term to describe Richard Dawkins’ style of atheism, the kind that is as openly hostile to religious and ridiculing to religious people as he encourages, I’m more than open in using it, if it causes less offense.
I am perfectly happy to recognize and even celebrate certain strains of thoughts that have roots in types of atheism– such as humanism, evolution, and other approaches to life, culture and science which atheists have so beautifully gifted to us. I do not concede to any sort of prejudice towards irreligious people. Quite the opposite, I think atheists should have every political, social, and personal right as anyone else.
I do stand by my position, though, that Richard Dawkins’ style is causing more rifts than bridges, and it is antithetical to the “all are alike unto God” approach that I take in the play, and in life in general. Dawkins has openly admitted that he is “hostile towards religion.” He calls upon other atheists to “mock them, ridicule them,” speaking of religious people (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPqqp8KVuQU). One of the large themes of my play that is that it doesn’t take violence to begin harm towards another people. Often it just starts with hostile words. Intolerance and hate begin in the mind. It’s what caused anti-Semitism to rise to such an extreme degree (Dawkins’ approach would apply to believing Jews, after all). It’s what caused the hatred towards the LGBTQ community. It’s words, it’s stereotypes, it’s mocking and ridiculing. Such an approach, as Dawkins takes, plants a seed of enmity that can, yes, grow into even the extreme situations that are played out in both versions of the play.
I do not attempt such enmity driven attacks in my play, except to represent the extreme arguments of both sides. Rather, A Roof Overhead is a call of love, tolerance, and mutual respect, recognizing the damage that words (such as Sam’s article in the play, or the devastating words of Joel, or Sam’s pastor and family) can have towards a community, whether Mormon, gay, atheist, etc. Sam is not the “villain” of the piece, as you’ve stated. She’s the protagonist. It is on her journey that we as an audience follow the most, as her own prejudices are broken down, as well as breaking down the prejudices of those around her.
You said, “One of Goldbergâ€™s complaints is that was that nobody in your play seemed particularly surprised to see atheist teens engaging in hate-based violence. Obviously it shouldnâ€™t be off limits for an author to write a fictional scene or character that is atypical. But as an author you can toss in real-life-style clues that let the audience know that you the author donâ€™t think that your character or scenario is typical.”
The thing is, chanson, I actually DO give such voice in the play, which is one of the major flaws of this post in general. You comment on a work you did NOT watch in its entirety when you posted, but rather depended on James’ review to villify me. It’s a bit poetic, I suppose, just as Sam’s article influenced others in the play, so has James’ article unfairly represented me, and people believed it without investigating it themselves before passing judgment and attacking my reputation publicly.
And please discount a lot of the grammatical typos, weird phrasings, etc. above. I should have gone back through it and cleaned it up.
Even if you say that Sam is the protagonist, you have her publish an article about the personal lives of her host family that includes enough personal detail for others to figure out exactly who she’s talking about. That is a highly unethical invasion of privacy. Similarly, the other principal secular voices in your story are not merely harshly criticizing religion, but they are engaging in bullying and harassment. (And — correct me if I’m wrong, but — I assume you don’t have a balancing atheist character telling them that this unethical behavior is not acceptable and is not the way to criticize religion.)
In all of your discussion (including your discussion of Dawkins @4) I think there is an important bit of nuance that you’re missing. It is very possible to harshly criticize (even attack) a cherished idea — while simultaneously valuing ethical behavior (fairness, justice) towards the people whose ideas you’re criticizing. You argue (directly @4, and in your play) that the type of rhetoric atheists direct at religion naturally dovetails into bigotry and disregard for the rights and humanity of others. I say that’s not necessarily the case (please review my quote from PZ Myers @3).
Plus, you haven’t touched on the central point of my original post (which I wrote before I read Goldman’s review). You write:
OK, I’m not convinced that’s true, but one can certainly make a legitimate case for it.
But I would expect that your experience with Kushner would make you doubly or triply careful about not falling into the same pitfall in your own work. If atheists watching the your play think that you’re using atheist straw-men to raise up the standard of your cause, I would hope that responding with “Well, I can argue that they’re wrong,” wouldn’t be sufficient. Kushner can easily do the same for his Mormon characters.
You, as an established playwright, have the unique opportunity to show Kushner and his fans how it’s done. You could be in a position to say, “See, I wrote an atheist (or lesbian or Native American or whatever) character and people from that group recognize it as a realistic portrayal of their experiences.”
If that is what you’re shooting for, then you will contemplate my criticism here seriously, and not just dismiss it.
CHANSON: “Even if you say that Sam is the protagonist, you have her publish an article about the personal lives of her host family that includes enough personal detail for others to figure out exactly who sheâ€™s talking about. That is a highly unethical invasion of privacy.”
ME: Yes, it IS a highly unethical invasion of privacy. That’s the point. It is a mistake on her part, born out of her zeal. Even the most moral of characters have tragic flaws and make mistakes. You’ll note that my religious characters make similarly horrible mistakes, especially when they think they are in the right (which Goldberg notes correctly, although he believed I condoned their actions, which I do not).
You’ll find that these characters do not fit neatly into “white hats” and “black hats” but fall into shades of gray. They are well intentioned people who are often blinded by their own pain, their own blindness, their own self-centeredness. All of them are flawed in their own way and all of them are beautiful in their own way.
CHANSON”: “Similarly, the other principal secular voices in your story are not merely harshly criticizing religion, but they are engaging in bullying and harassment.”
ME: Yes, bullying and harassment are major themes in the story, so portraying those actions in Sam IS intentional… but you fail to note that the bullying and harassment comes from both sides of the divide. Joel and Maxwell have similar moments (Joel’s final moments on stage are meant to portray him as unforgiving and cemented in his prejudice for the time being), and Daisy is very over zealous in how she tries to push her beliefs on Sam during the early morning scriptures scene. It’s also important to note that Sam’s pain is born out of her friend being bullied into suicide because of his homosexuality. These are much more complicated character exchanges than you are giving them credit for.
If you don’t think that atheists and secular characters are capable of bullying, I know from very personal experience that you are wrong. Make no mistake, there are some trends that I have seen in some segments of secular and atheistic culture that I AM criticizing. I have been on the receiving end of harsh words, alienating attitudes, and, yes, bullying from secular people. This play wasn’t born in a vacuum, but is a response to some of my own personal experiences. I also have seen many people of my own faith show these attitudes to “unbelievers” and “apostates,” which I found just as uncharitable and repellant. So both sides of that paradigm are represented in this play. I heard reports of people asking, “Why does [the playwright] hate Mormons so much?” because I showed my Mormon characters just as flawed as my secular characters. I would say to those people the same thing that I have said to you and James Goldberg: You have not understood the intent of the play. The play makes it very clear that “All Are Alike Unto God” and that both sides of the conflict were in the wrong, but beloved by God.
CHANSON: “(And â€” correct me if Iâ€™m wrong, but â€” I assume you donâ€™t have a balancing atheist character telling them that this unethical behavior is not acceptable and is not the way to criticize religion.)”
ME: Okay, I will correct you. This is the exchange between Abish’s agnostic best friend, Jenny, and Tyrell, a black Mormon character who is dating one of the Fieldings in the play. I can’t remember if this was one of the parts cut out when the camera ran out of juice momentarily, or if it is in the recording you saw (although you admit you didn’t finish watching it at the time of writing your post, so you may have just not gotten to that part). Here’s the proof in the pudding:
“JENNY. Whoa, things suddenly got tense.
TYRELL. Itâ€™s been like that around here lately.
JENNY. Really, I just wish people would just learn to chillax.
TYRELL. Itâ€™s kind of a complicated situation.
JENNY. Yeah, thatâ€™s always the big excuse, isnâ€™t it? â€œItâ€™s
complicated.â€ But, you know what, look at me and Abish, weâ€™ve been best friends forever and we believe totally different things!
TYRELL. Where do you fall on the spectrum?
JENNY. Somewhere between agnostic and â€œlove one another.â€ Or, if you believe my Mom, I worship myself. Which is kind of true.
TYRELL. It sounds like youâ€™ve been a good friend to Abish.
JENNY. Well, I mean like, look at her. Sheâ€™s totes spectacular!
TYRELL. Do you ever argue?
JENNY. About religion? Hell no. I mean we talk about what we believe, sure. But what she believes has nothing to do with who she really is.
TYRELL. Hm. Iâ€™m not sure if I really believe that or not. Belief is a powerful thing.
JENNY. So is the human personality.”
Jenny is a true friend to Abish throughout the play and is a completely secular character. Her charitable and inclusive humanistic attitude is meant to contrast Sam’s defensive, sometimes hostile attitude towards religion. Jenny isn’t as major of a character as Sam, but nonetheless an important one.
CHANSON: “In all of your discussion (including your discussion of Dawkins @4) I think there is an important bit of nuance that youâ€™re missing. It is very possible to harshly criticize (even attack) a cherished idea â€” while simultaneously valuing ethical behavior (fairness, justice) towards the people whose ideas youâ€™re criticizing. You argue (directly @4, and in your play) that the type of rhetoric atheists direct at religion naturally dovetails into bigotry and disregard for the rights and humanity of others. I say thatâ€™s not necessarily the case (please review my quote from PZ Myers @3).”
ME: Quite the contrary, I certainly do believe people can attack an idea, while simultaneously valuing the people who they disagree with. That’s what I believe my whole ending makes VERY clear. A couple of snippets from the final scene:
“SAM. I have changed, Joel. I have changed so much. The world will never be the same for me, it canâ€™t be. But what Iâ€™m telling you is that even before all of this, I was still a good person even then. I didnâ€™t mean for any of
this to happen.”
And from the very end, to me the most important moments in the play:
NAOMI. Can– can we pray, Papa? Maybe that will help.
MAXWELL. I… I donâ€™t really feel like praying…
DAISY. Which means we probably should.
MAXWELL. All right.
DAISY. Do you mind if I say it, Max?
MAXWELL. Go ahead.
SAM. I… I donâ€™t know if I can do that.
ASHERA. Donâ€™t make it a sign of belief then, Sam. Just a sign of
They all look to SAM and she nods. They gather in a circle and kneel. ASHERA initiates hand holding until they have linked themselves together.
DAISY. Dearest Father, we are grateful for thee; for our Mother; for our blessed Savior, thy precious son Jesus; and for the Holy Spirit. We have failed thee so often, but these words amongst the writings of thy prophets comfort us, these words that have haunted my memory ever since I heard them uttered by my littlest child: (it is evident that she has painstakingly committed this scripture to memory) â€œ… and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.â€ Our Abba, our… our Papa… let us so remember. In the name of thy Son, our brother, Jesus Christ, Amen.
They all say â€œAmen,â€ except for SAM. Wordlessly, they all kneel there for a moment. Then SAM stands.
SAM. On rare occasions I wish I could still believe. But I just canâ€™t. With what Iâ€™ve experienced, with what I feel like I know to be true, I just canâ€™t believe.
NAOMI. Just as our experiences canâ€™t lead us to anywhere but belief.
TYRELL. Even when it would be easier not to believe.
DAISY. Especially then.
SAM. Then where on earth does that leave us?
MAXWELL. (pause) Banana shakes?
SAM. Banana shakes.
Quietly, they all exit into the kitchen.
Please, don’t mistake my critique of certain tactics taken by certain atheists to be a critique of the humanist style of atheism I admire that has inherent love at its core. As I mentioned, Jenny represents that side of the equation.
CHANSON: But I would expect that your experience with Kushner would make you doubly or triply careful about not falling into the same pitfall in your own work. If atheists watching the your play think that youâ€™re using atheist straw-men to raise up the standard of your cause, I would hope that responding with â€œWell, I can argue that theyâ€™re wrong,â€ wouldnâ€™t be sufficient. Kushner can easily do the same for his Mormon characters.
ME: First of all, the article you are quoting me on is from 7 years ago and you’re proof texting the quote by not including its follow up context. Here’s a more complete version of the quote: “Angels In America is a political piece set in the 80s attacking Reagan-style conservatism and the religious right. It tries to raise awareness of the plight of the homosexual, especially in reference to AIDS. And it often uses Mormon characters as straw men to knock down so that it can raise up the standard of its cause. And at the end, it condemns God for abandoning the world, and a character urges the angels who were left behind to sue God for damages done against them and against humanity. To be fair, not all of the Mormon characters are presented in a negative lightâ€“ there is a Mormon mother who shines as a kind of compassionate heroine of the story.”
The caveat that Kushner makes his Mormon characters deeply human is an important one. I wouldn’t use the word “strawmen” to describe his use of his Mormon characters anymore, although many of my other criticisms about them not seeming particularly Mormon remain (which isn’t a new criticism… Eric Samuelsen, I believe William Morris, and other Mormon authors/critics have said the same thing).
A more up to date analysis of mine on the play is this one:
Here’s a relevant quote from that one:
“In the case of Angels in America, its Mormon characters are generally well drawn, dynamic individuals. Yet, with perhaps the exception of the devoted Mormon mother Hannah Pitt (who travels to New York to help her son Joe after he comes out to her out as gay), very few of the Mormon characters actually seem, well, Mormon. Even accounting for the fact that Mormons come from many different backgrounds and have struggles and vices just like any other person, there is something â€œoffâ€ about Kushnerâ€™s portrayal of Mormonism through characters like Joe and Harper Pitt.”
Whether the same can be said of Sam Forrest and Jenny in A Roof Overhead is, of course, a matter of opinion, but the atheist actress who played her in the Arizona production of the play told me that she really related with Sam and once yelled at me, “Mahonri, stop writing what is in my head!” Whether I wrote empathetically for all atheists is doubtful, but there have been at least some who have related to Sam. In the end, I could only write from my own experience, as many of Sam’s pains, arguments and experiences came from my own doubts and dark nights of the soul.
CHANSON: “You, as an established playwright, have the unique opportunity to show Kushner and his fans how itâ€™s done. You could be in a position to say, â€œSee, I wrote an atheist (or lesbian or Native American or whatever) character and people from that group recognize it as a realistic portrayal of their experiences.â€
If that is what youâ€™re shooting for, then you will contemplate my criticism here seriously, and not just dismiss it. ”
ME: First, I’m flattered that you think I’m an “established” playwright. I haven’t thought of myself as that before. I think I still belong in the “struggling playwright” category.
My main beef with your post still remains, though. You wrote it without reading or seeing the play in its entirety. For an article about understanding people (and in this case art) in their context, I found that ironic. Many of the accusations you made were unfounded, as they are dealt with in the play and have the exact opposite intent from what the intolerance you are attributing to me. You have played loosey goosey with my reputation without having given the play the proper attention or analysis.
I read Angels in America multiple times before I publicly commented on the play. You didn’t even read my play once. I DO take criticism seriously. I have taken criticism (including Goldberg’s) on A Roof Overhead to the point of significantly altering the text to make it more palpable to secular audiences and to make my intent more clear. However, if you don’t want me to “dismiss” your comments, then read/watch the play in its entirety before posting on the internet as to what a hypocrite I am.
I’m not trying to debate you and tell you your play is all wrong and bad, etc. My point is that writing a character from an unfamiliar group is challenging, even for experienced, talented, established writers.
I admit that I did not watch your whole play — I just watched it up to the first major stereotype I encountered. That is, I watched up to the first point where your character looked like a religious person’s projection of an atheist rather than looking like an actual atheist.
I would be happy to watch your whole play and give you feedback on what aspects of your atheist characters could use improvement. Even if you ultimately disagree with various points, I hope you would regard this as valuable information.
This is not about me picking on the faithful or trying to say that faithful Mormons can’t write a decent play or anything like that. Quite the contrary, my intention here is constructive criticism because what you’re doing is sufficiently good that it’s worth the bother of doing it better. People here can tell you that I read LDS-interest manuscripts and give critical feedback to pretty much anyone who asks — though sometimes not as rapidly as I would hope. 😉
If you are not interested in receiving critical feedback, and you just want to explain to me that I’m wrong, then there is not point in bothering to continue this conversation.
I think that would be a bit of a shame, though. The modern American culture wars represent a significant enough difference in basic values that it would be quite possible (and interesting) to write a piece where the characters have a serious conflict, and where audience members from the various opposing perspectives strongly agree with and identify with (some of) the characters representing their side of the rift.
Of course I’m always interested in people watching my plays and giving me feedback, whether I ultimately agree with that feedback or not. Again, my main beef was that you were commenting on the play without its entire context…you actually watching the play would change that paradigm, of course. 😉
Also, to assist, here are a couple of other reviews and perspectives of the play, including the Association for Mormon Letters’ Award citation:
@9 OK, it appears the video is still there on youtube, so I’ll watch it and send you my feedback via email. I have a couple of other pieces in my backlog (as usual 😉 ), so it may take a few weeks.