Thursday, February 10, 2011

Angels In America With The Ex-Mormons

To: Abbottsville Fourth Ward
From: Former Stake President Stan Taylor
Subject: The Angels in America exhibit

A little over a week ago I rode the train into San Francisco to join the Post-Mormons for the Angels in America exhibit at the Museum of Performance and Design. I got off at the Civic Center BART station and walked past San Francisco's magnificent City Hall, the place where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were famously wed, and George Moscone and Harvey Milk were notoriously murdered. On this particular Saturday, Egyptians were protesting Mubarak. But a howling wind dulled the sound of their chants, and gunmetal grey clouds curtained the afternoon in a macabre gloom.

I climbed the steps of the old Veteran's and War Memorial. On an occasion when the Herbst Theater is holding an event, the War Memorial is teeming with people. But on this day the cavernous lobby was empty, save for a mirthless security guard who eyed me from behind his circular desk. My footsteps echoed as I crossed the marble lobby. I stepped inside the elevator and pushed "two." The doors slid shut, but the lift stayed still. I pushed "two" again. Nothing happened. I pushed the "open" button. Nothing happened. Again. Nothing happened. I rang the alarm.

The doors opened and I was met by the startled security guard.

"What are you doing in here?" he asked.

"Trying to go to the second floor."

"Nobody ever uses this elevator."

I muttered "sorry," followed him to an adjacent lift, and looked up to watch the antique brass arrow travel from "four" to "one." This time when I pushed "two" the car engaged. I chuckled to myself as I rode. It's no wonder that San Francisco has been the chosen setting for the noir works of great artists like Hammett and Hitchcock.

Sketch of "heaven" for the HBO
movie. (Sorry for poor quality) 
Then the "noir" evaporated when I greeted the sunny faces of the ex-Mormons who waited for me at the entrance to the exhibit. Together we went in to view the work of another great artist, Tony Kushner, who also used San Francisco as a setting. -- In his case, for heaven.

Kushner was inspired to write Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes after he was approached by Mormon missionaries on a NYC subway. He was taken with the missionaries' sincerity and devotion to the faith, and also fascinated by the notion of an American religion.

He began by composing long-hand notes in a series of lined journals with one of his many fountain pens (for which he had an admitted fetish.)
On this page of his journal, Tony Kushner wrote:
There are some lovely things about Mormons.They believe everyone eventually gets into heaven. You can pray a dead person into heaven if you're a Mormon and you believe.
Of course Joseph Smith was crazy.
But he was crazy like Walt Whitman. Crazy in a Big American way. If P.T. Barnum had written the Holy Scriptures while ingesting great quantities of opium, it would be the Book of Mormon.
Only in America does an Angel of the Lord appear dispensing eyeglasses.
It is wonderful to believe that an Angel appeared in upstate N.Y.
I have waited all my life for an Angel.
An American Angel.
Joseph Smith and millions like him believe that there are Angels in America. Or were, anyway.
An American Angel would have rawhide tassels, tangled hair, buckskin wings, coon tail hat, eyes like the Great Lakes, skin like bark and a pine tree smell. It would live in the sunset in Yosemite National Park.

The journals evolved into a seven hour play in two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches received its world premiere in 1991 in San Francisco. From there it went to London, then to Broadway. Part Two: Perestroika followed in 1992. In 2003, the two parts were adapted as the HBO mini-series, Angels in America. The work received the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards, including the Tony, Golden Globe, and Emmy.

As I toured the exhibit with the ex-Mormons, I couldn't help but feel sad that so few believing Mormons have seen the plays. Three of the main characters are LDS: Joe Pitt, a closeted gay man, Harper Pitt, his mentally fragile wife, and Hannah Pitt, his stoical, pioneer-stock mother. They are well-drawn and accurate reflections of real Mormons, and Kushner treats them with the compassion and dignity they deserve. However, because the play pokes a little fun at Mormonism, and depicts its followers as imperfect, it was deemed inappropriate by the authorities in Salt Lake.

For the life of me, I can not understand why The Brethren are not thrilled that our church inspired one of the greatest works of American theater.

Ironically, the play's central premise is that God abandoned His angels for the more interesting company of His less perfect human creations who are capable of change. The angels become jealous of mankind, and try to halt our progress, much like the current LDS authorities.

But old-school Mormon that I am, I still consider "eternal progression" and "free agency" to be primary elements of my faith. And as a retired Institute Director, I am no longer bound by The Brethen's opinions. In other words, I do what I damn well please.

After the exhibit I climbed into the back of Steve and Sarah's Prius, and was chauffered downtown to a lovely meal at Le Central on Bush Street. We enjoyed great food, lively conversation, and, of course, loud laughter. And I personally savored another rare opportunity to discuss science, art, and ancient American history.

After dinner I walked alone down Powell past packed restaurants, bars, and clanging cable cars. What started as a drizzle turned quickly to a downpour. But the weather did not dampen spirits. It takes more than a little rain to keep San Franciscans from enjoying their free agency.

This month a new musical is opening on Broadway entitled, The Book of Mormon. In a recent interview in Vogue, Trey Parker (the show's co-creator with Matt Stone) said the following:
We love musicals, and we love Mormons. I think if any Mormons come and stay all the way through, they'll end up liking the show. I mean, it rips on them a lot, but in the end their spirit of wanting to help wins the day.
Not only are The Brethren in Salt Lake not staying to the end of the show, they are not even waiting for it to begin. Last Monday LDS Public Affairs issued the following statement:
The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people's lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.
Beneath the statement is a link to a March 2009 article entitled The Publicity Dilemma, a tiresome screed that denigrates any person, film, or TV show that has recently criticized the Mormons, then goes on to boast of the LDS Church's powerful influence (with the use of inflated numbers.)

Again I am saddened that many of my fellow believers will miss out on another celebration of their faith. But I am glad that as an old school Mormon, and retired LDS Institute Director, I am at liberty to do as I please.

. . . and have already bought my ticket to New York. 

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  1. Oh Donna, you have written a masterpiece with this one. I too loved "Angels In America" and was amazed that I'd not heard of it until just last year. Of course as an LDS person I would not have had any exposure to such interesting literature or theatre but in the decade since leaving I've been in awe of the talent and brilliance that abounds in the colorful world outside Mormonism.

    I'm jealous that you get to go to such exhibits. I love SF as a place to visit and hope to come hang out with you there someday.

    The P.T. Barnum statement is a riot!! Yet the optomism for it to be almost real does shine through for most Mormons and they reflect that spirit of the absurd and impossible. Almost like a whole population of anticipatory six year olds waiting for Santa to appear. You can't help but wish it were so just so they didn't have to face the disappointment of finding out that the gifts came from boring ol' mom and dad.

    Yet what a new world we have in front of us when we finaly do wake up and realize how we can change our own destinies and make our own choices rather than wait for an arbitrary authority to dole out opportunity.

    I'm so glad you wrote a tender serious piece. It gives me a wonderful insight into Donna Banta. A wonderful view indeed.

  2. Thanks Insana. I do hope you can visit sometime and hang with us. Yeah, I love the PT Barnum statement and smiled when I saw you refer to him in your last post on your blog.

    Stan Taylor is my one rational Mormon, and I enjoy his voice from time to time. Like you, I've known so many nice Mormons, many of them silly, some not.

  3. Really lovely :) I loved Angels in America, which I saw done by the Salt Lake Acting Co. Your thoughts were spot on.

  4. I watched Angels in America last year - this reminds me that I wanted to read some critical works so that I could maybe understand it a little more ... haha Thanks for posting

  5. Ann-Michelle, how nice that you got to see it performed in SLC. Carla, thanks for your comment!

  6. Excellent post, Donna! And informative. I did not know about "Angels in America" -- its writer, its inspiration, or anything for that matter. I'd really like to see it. And I can hardly wait for your review of "The Book of Mormon."

  7. Thanks CD. I saw the first part of Angels in America performed on stage around the time of my exit from Mormonism. Powerful stuff. The exhibit stirred up a lot of emotion in me.