Where: Belfry Theatre
When: Opens tonight, continues to Feb. 19
Tickets: $20 to $53 (250-385-6815 or belfry.bc.ca)
Joan MacLeod says visiting Colorado City, where disgraced church prophet Warren Jeffs once lived, was downright creepy.
Last spring, the playwright travelled to the Arizona town to do research for her play Gracie. The play is about a girl called Gracie, who leaves Colorado City with her family for B.C.’s Bountiful, another polygamous religious community.
MacLeod recalls Colorado City’s landscape — arid red hills, blue sky — as being beautiful. But the streets, dotted with abandoned houses, were bleak. For a time, she and her companion were followed by a pickup truck with tinted windows.
“It wasn’t like they were trying to run us off the road. It just felt a little weird,” MacLeod said. “The vibe there certainly is that strangers are not welcome.”
Directed by Vanessa Porteous, artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects, Gracie is a new one-woman play having its première at the Belfry Theatre.
Gracie is born into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a radical polygamous sect that splintered from the Mormon church. Her mother left Colorado City to meet a new husband in Bountiful.
We meet Gracie as a bike-loving eight-year-old and follow her for seven years. She faces the challenges of any FLDS girl, including the prospect of a forced marriage in her teens.
The real-life FLDS has snared its share of headlines in recent years. One of its most notorious figures is Jeffs, who was married 81 times and is serving a prison sentence for the sexual assault of children. More recently, FLDS leader Winston Blackmore of Bountiful was charged with committing polygamy with 24 women.
In researching Gracie, MacLeod studied such books as Escape by former FLDS member Caroline Jessup, and reporter Daphne Bramham’s The Secret Lives of Saints: Child Brides and Lost Boys in a Polygamous Mormon Sect.
Bramham’s book is about Bountiful, the so-called polygamy capital of Canada.
MacLeod visited Bountiful three years ago. Compared with Colorado City, MacLeod’s impression was positive. Boys rode bicycles in a green pasture, young women strolled by in long dresses while listening to ear-buds. In nearby Creston, MacLeod noticed little girls, also in Mormon-style dress, gathered around as an outside “community piano” was played.
MacLeod’s most celebrated play is The Shape of a Girl. The acclaimed one-woman drama centres on Reena Virk’s murder in 1997. Best known as a social-issue playwright, MacLeod is also the author of Amigo’s Blue Guitar (about a Salvadoran refugee), Homechild (inspired by the thousands of children shipped to Canada from Britain) and The Hope Slide (about a girl who admires Doukhobor martyrs).
As with Gracie, MacLeod’s plays are often told from a young woman’s point of view. Both the playwright and Porteous said they’re especially pleased with Lili Beaudoin, the Vancouver actor playing the title role.
Porteous and Belfry Theatre artistic director Michael Shamata cast Beaudoin after auditioning actors from across Canada.
“The others just didn’t have that essence, the child’s perspective. Open to the world, without judgment,” Porteous said. “She has great depth as a performer. And she’s only 25.”
Beaudoin tried out for the part on Granville Island. The actor told them she had bumped into a group of FLDS girls visiting the tourist spot just before her audition.
“She had a tiny little conversation with them. She was just so genuine in her interest in the play. She wasn’t just there to get the gig,” Porteous said.
MacLeod said Gracie reflects her longtime interest in cult groups who live in B.C. She views her new play “almost like a companion piece” to The Hope Slide.
She stressed that Gracie doesn’t depict real-life characters. MacLeod launched her creative process by imagining the character of Gracie, then figuring out why her story might be important. One challenge was the fact MacLeod has no experience of growing up in an FLDS community.
“But you know, a kid’s a kid. I also liked riding my bike when I was a kid,” she said.
In writing Gracie, MacLeod avoided espousing any black-and-white point of view. She strived for complexity and empathy.
For instance, to outsiders it might seem unimaginable to allow one’s teenaged daughter to marry a much older stranger. Yet MacLeod said it’s important to remember that, from the perspective of an FLDS mother, such a choice puts the child on the path of eternal salvation.
“I just try to get grabbed by [a subject] and look at it really deeply. My own political agenda, it doesn’t usually remain intact. I don’t want to get too messagey.”
Porteous has worked with MacLeod before, serving as a dramaturge for The Shape of a Girl. One of MacLeod’s defining strengths is an ability to present her characters with humanity and compassion, Porteous said.
“The jujitsu move of great art is to go into another person’s perspective when you might not agree with them. That is Joan’s great gift.”
Although many of MacLeod’s plays have played the Belfry Theatre, this is first to have its world première in her home city. She finds the experience gratifying — and slightly nerve-wracking.
MacLeod, a creative writing professor at the University of Victoria, said 30 of her students attended a recent preview. “They’re like: ‘OK, let’s see what she’s made of,’ ” she said, chuckling.