Pygmalion Theatre Company’s upcoming production is Mountain Meadows, a play by Debora Threedy exploring one of the most violent and controversial episodes in Utah and Latter-day Saint history. The play weaves together the stories of two women: Nita, granddaughter of one of the perpetrators of the massacre, and Miranda, one of its survivors. In anticipation of the performances, playwright Julie Jensen interviewed Threedy.
JULIE JENSEN: Trace your path to this point of how you became a Utah playwright.
DEBORA THREEDY: Theatre major in college, theatre jobs for a few years after college, a failure of courage (or moment of clarity). Decided to go to law school, practiced a few years, didn’t like it, got a job at the University of Utah and taught law while acting and directing, stopped acting in plays and started writing them, retired from the law school – and here we are!
JJ: What about your career in law affects your writing of plays?
DT: Often the subject of my plays involves the law, or a character in the play is a lawyer. “The Third Crossing,” a look at the history of interracial relationships in this country, was inspired in part by how the law has defined and enforced the concept of race. I decided to retell the Joe Hill story because, as a lawyer, I could see how flawed his murder trial was in a way that previous versions of his life had missed. As for characters who are lawyers: “Balthazar” in my retelling of “Merchant of Venice” from the point of view of Portia, features two lawyers. And the protagonist of my play about polygamy, “Wrestling With Angels,” is a young woman attorney.
Apart from thematic influences, law and theater share an obsession with language. As a lawyer and law professor, I wrote a ton. And if you are paying attention and care about honing your craft, you learn from all that writing. I can write quickly, and I am good at organization and structure. All that helps me as a playwright. On the negative side, legal writing is analytical, and sometimes as a playwright I have to fight that part of my training and allow the intuitive more control.
JJ: Tell us a bit about how the subject(s) of this play chose you.
DT: I always thought of Mountain Meadows as being near Cedar City. So in 2017 when I moved down to Dammeron Valley, much closer to St. George than to Cedar City, I was surprised to discover I live about ten miles from the massacre site. I took that as a sign from the universe that I should write about it.
JJ: Utah history seems to have compelled you time after time. Do you know why?
DT: I believe in blooming where you are planted. I planted myself in Utah, looked around, and found all these amazing stories: Everett Ruess, Joe Hill, Juanita Brooks and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
I believe in the importance of preserving true stories from the past in order to shed light on what we’re experiencing in the present. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”
JJ: You live now in southern Utah, just a few miles from the Massacre site. How has the landscape affected the this play?
DT: The memorial at the site of the massacre marks one mass grave, but it does not contain the remains of all the victims. In 1859, there were other mass graves in the Meadows. Their location has been lost. Recently, those locations have been tentatively identified, including by dogs trained to detect human remains, but they are not marked in any way. Every time I drive by the massacre site, I find myself staring at the landscape, very aware that mysteries remain.
JJ: I understand that you plan eventually to write more about the historian, Juanita Brooks. What about her attracts you?
DT: She does everything a good LDS housewife with nine kids is supposed to do in the thirties and forties, and yet when it comes to moral courage, she’s a superhero. She writes a history that changes everything, and she does this in the face of the sustained opposition of the Church and her community. Where does that fortitude come from? That’s the question I want to answer, so I have to keep writing about her.
JJ: To what extent did you take artistic license with the events in this play?
DT: “Mountain Meadows” has two stories braided together. The story about Juanita Brooks’ writing the history of the massacre is firmly grounded in fact – except for the ghost of Nephi. Nita never claimed to have been visited by his ghost, but I felt free to imagine that visitation because she did believe in spirits and other paranormal experiences. The only other liberties I took with the facts are minor ones for dramatic purposes, like combining two meetings into one or portraying a confrontation as a face-to-face meeting when it actually happened in writing.
The other story in “Mountain Meadows” is about Miranda who survives the massacre and is raised in Utah. Her uncovering the truth of her parentage is mainly fiction, but fiction inspired by historical mysteries. One of the children who survived the massacre supposedly remained in Utah – that’s even engraved in the historical marker at the massacre site overlook. And Juanita wrote that she was approached by a woman who claimed her grandmother was that child. Everything the play says about the massacre itself is factual.
JJ: What do you hope audiences understand after experiencing your play?
DT: You shouldn’t censor history. Covering up the past out of guilt and shame only perpetuates guilt and the shame. We are not responsible for what happened before our time, but we are responsible for what we say, or don’t say, about it. I think all of that is relevant today.
JJ: Salt Lake City has a dynamic playwriting community. Why?
DT: Plan-B’s Playwrights’ Lab, meeting since 2008, has developed a wealth of playwriting talent and produces a season of these new plays every year. Other theatres are now producing plays by the Lab writers.
JJ: Why are you a playwright and not a novelist or a poet?
DT: Novels are too long and poems are too short. Plays feel “just right.” And then of course, forty years of acting kind of predisposed me to want to write plays.
JJ: Anything else you wish I had asked you?
“Mountain Meadows,” directed by Morag Shepherd and featuring Stephanie Howell, David Hanson, Matthew Ivan Bennett, Carlie Young, Tiffani DiGregorio and Daisy Blake, will be produced by Pygmalion Productions Feb. 17—Mar. 4. Tickets available through ArtTix.
Julie Jensen has written more than 30 plays, all of which have been professionally produced. A Utah native, she holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from Wayne State University. Having taught playwriting as a guest at more than a dozen colleges and universities, she was a professor of theatre at Saint Mary’s College and the University of Notre Dame and directed the graduate playwriting program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She now makes her home in Salt Lake City where she works with three theatres: Salt Lake Acting Company, Plan-B Theatre, and Pygmalion Theatre.
Jensen has written more than 30 plays, all of which have been professionally produced.