History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
James Baldwin wrote those words for an August 1965 essay in Ebony magazine with the title, The White Man’s Guilt.
Fifteen years prior, in 1950, Juanita Brooks, a Utah teacher, wrote the most comprehensive book-length history about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. A decade after Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, a wagon train of 127 immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas were slaughtered in southern Utah by Mormon zealots. Seven were spared: all children. Only one man, John D. Lee, was ever tried for the crime. The jury did not reach a unanimous verdict in his first trial, but when he was retried he was convicted and executed.
Playwright Julie Jensen, who was born and raised in Beaver, Utah, not far from where the massacre occurred, recalls how many feared Brooks’ book. “No one wanted to talk about it, much less read it,” Jensen says in an interview with The Utah Review. She adds that a copy, which was purchased in Denver, was passed among family members who wanted to read it, if they dared. The book was taboo but it is clear 70 years after its publication, Brooks had reset the compass for legitimate Mormon historiography.
Nearly twenty years after its premiere, Jensen’s award-winning play Two-Headed, directed by Fran Pruyn, is being staged as the season opener for the Pygmalion Theatre Company in a run from Nov. 8 to Nov. 23 in the Black Box Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.
The thematic ideal of two-headed encompasses many meanings, as Claire Bushman, a Mormon who taught American Studies at Columbia University, wrote in a 2001 Sunstone magazine article, explains: “They had public and private heads; some things, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and polygamy, they just did not want to talk about. They knew, and they didn’t know. They imagined but did not speak their thoughts. The dark past was suppressed. They lived with secrets.”
Jensen, whose works have been produced outside of Utah more frequently than any other local playwright, approaches the fictional narrative challenge with a scrupulous sensitivity for historical accuracy. This occurs as her two main characters, as they are set in the 19th century, contend with their individual and collective tests of conscience, friendship and identity against the backdrop of the massacre, its memories, and the practice of polygamy.
The play’s five scenes cover forty years, each episode representing a decade, as set in rural southern Utah. It opens with Lavinia, marked by ferocity and unapologetic expressions, and Hettie, who embodies a gentle sincerity and loyal commitment to her Mormon faith, both at the age of 10. The first scene occurs on what would have been the day of the massacre.
From the first moments, Jensen sets up the lucid, versatile and on-point ‘two-headed’ metaphor. Hettie presses Lavinia to show her the two-headed calf that Lavinia claims is in the root cellar. Lavinia refuses, saying that she is planning to show it first to Jane, an off-stage character and Lavinia’s secret crush. “When I look at Jane doing something ordinary, I think, ‘Oh, that ain’t one bit ordinary; that is beautiful.’ That’s how I think when I see Jane. What do you think when you see Jane?” Lavinia tells Hettie. The references to Jane, as audiences will see, are integral to the story’s development and epiphanies. Hettie tries unsuccessfully to persuade Lavinia to show her the curious attraction. “I tell you, I am a crazy person when it comes to two-headed things. I just can’t stand it till I see them,” Hettie says.
The two girls also talk about the massacre, which occurred at sunrise that morning, as mentioned previously. Hettie thinks the emigrants are hiding. However, Lavinia tells her they were killed by Indians. “Killed ‘em all. All except for seven small children. Too young to speak the truth of what they saw,” she says.
As the scenes pass through each decade, the relationship between the two women is tested constantly. In the patriarchal polygamous rural community, their lives are intertwined not because of independent choices but instead from the rigid intolerance that girds their harsh circumstances in 19th century Utah life. Lavinia detests her father but is rocked when Hettie marries him. Only later do we discover that Lavinia witnessed the massacre, which was carried out by Mormons and orchestrated in part by her father. The play’s last scene takes place in 1897, just a year after Utah has gained statehood, made possible only because the church was forced to disavow formally polygamy.
Two-Headed vividly imagines the practical realities of a strenuous life for 19th century Mormon women who had to abide more than patriarchal dictates and the inevitabilities of polygamous demands. “They did not have easy lives,” Jensen explains. “While the men traveled to Salt Lake City for church business, it was the women who had to carry the burdens. They should be admired for their resilience.” Today, one conceivably sees Lavinia as trying to cope with trauma and the stresses associated with it, knowing what happened in the massacre and her father’s involvement. Jensen adds that it must have taken enormous strength for a woman of Lavinia’s experience to decide to stay alive. In Two-Headed, it is Hettie who exemplifies not just her own resilience but her capacity to stay loyal to her lifelong friend, despite numerous events that normally would shatter any bonds of close friendship.
They worked longer and harder than what we can imagine relative to our contemporary lives. At one point, Hettie mentions, “I dug up the garden today. Quarter of an acre.” In another, Lavinia says, “It’s barbaric how many children we have. Even the Indians have fewer children than we do.” It is Hettie who summarizes their circumstances in Jensen’s memorable poetry: “My mother used to say her life was mirrored in the migration west. It’s beautiful and green in the east when you’re young. There’s a large, terrible flat part in the middle. That’s when the children are small. Then the hellish mountains before the children are grown. And after all of it, you end your days in the desert.” As Jensen adds, a woman at 50 in 1897 aged more quickly than a woman of comparable age today.
The play’s history of development is just as significant as the historical backdrop that anchors Two-Headed. Commissioned by ASK Theatre Projects in Los Angeles, the play received numerous staged readings and workshops before it was produced by the Salt Lake Acting Company in 2000, and then later by the Women’s Project in New York City. The play has been produced in various venues including Los Angeles and Santa Fe along with a 2009 production at the International Youth Arts Festival in the U.K. and in 2012 at the Brighton Fringe Festival in the U.K. The last Utah staging was at Utah State University in 2012.
When Two-Headed received its 2000 premiere in Salt Lake City, Gordon Hinckley was the church president. Regarding the church’s involvement in the massacre, “he had opened up a bit but he didn’t go as far as to apologize,” Jensen says. Before Hinckley became church president, he attended the 1990 dedication of the monument at Dan Sill Hill, acknowledging that he was grateful for the opportunity of reconciliation. Nearly a decade later, Hinckley, as president, delivered a speech at a more recent dedication of a gravesite memorial. He said, “That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day.”
Given how the current church leadership often has taken an even less enlightened stance on many issues, notwithstanding the massacre, than the modicum of gesture displayed by Hinckley, the latest production of Two-Headed portends to be as astutely relevant, if not more so, than its premiere nearly 20 years earlier.
Pruyn says the decision to stage Jensen’s work was natural as an opener for the 2019-2020 season. “I cannot emphasize enough just how important a piece of work this is for Utah audiences,” she adds. “It embodies every aspect of our creative and artistic mission at Pygmalion.”
Haley McCormick and Brenda Hattingh, respectively, play the characters of Hettie and Lavinia. Pruyn explains both actors rise to the formidable challenge of playing characters who go from ages 10 to 50 in the span of 75 minutes. Just as significant is Jensen’s script language, which strikes an exquisite balance of credibility that sustains the elevated rhetoric of the 19th century while making it accessible and comprehensible for contemporary audiences.
David DeWitt, a New York Times theater critic writing about the 2000 performances of the play for NYC’s Women’s Project Theater, noted the “gentle, poetic allure” of Jensen’s writing that make the two heads “an elegant and meaningful whole.” Pruyn says that Jensen’s rhythm is so intricate that it is not just focused on the spoken lines but also the silences and rests between the lines of dialogue. For a director, she says this perhaps is the complex task for achieving the play’s most effective dramatic pace.
Performances will take place Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. There will be a talkback after the Nov. 17 performance. Tickets are available here and as well including information about the season at Pygmalion website.