|Carl Day as Joseph Smith Jr.|
Burdens of Earth by Susan Howe was produced winter semester, 2009 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho
About This Play
This play is a dramatization of events in the five month incarceration of Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McCrae in the Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri. Smith and his companions were arrested and held in the Liberty Jail from December 1st, 1838 to April 6th, 1839.
Mormons revere this time as a defining moment in the life of founder, Joseph Smith. At his lowest point he wrote sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a volume of revelation and scripture in the Mormon faith.
About The Jail
The Liberty Jail was a double wall masonry building with a two foot thick limestone exterior and a one foot square timber interior wall. Between the masonry wall and the timber wall there was a foot of space filled with loose rubble to discourage prisoners from tunneling out.
There was a room above for the guards during the day and a dungeon below. At night, when the guards were not present, the door of the prison was barred and the prisoners had access to that room as well. The inside dimensions of the jail were fourteen and a half feet by fourteen feet. The room below had a six foot ceiling and the room above had a seven foot ceiling.
In the lower level, the only openings were two small iron bar covered windows six inches tall by two feet long. I am unsure if there was glass in those windows. Upstairs there were two larger, iron bar covered windows. Between the upper level and the lower level was a heavy trap door.
The prisoners were held here during the coldest part of the winter of 1839 without blankets or bedding, only straw on the stone floor for comfort. Food was scant and not very good. Accounts at the time suggested it was sometimes poisoned or worse.
Because the charges they were being held on were thin at best, on April 6th during a prison transfer, the sheriff and the guards got drunk on whiskey and the one sober guard helped the prisoners saddle up and escape.
The jail was later used as an icehouse and later torn down. The floor of the dungeon and part of the foundation remained and in 1963 it was purchased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. The jail was partially rebuilt inside a visitors center. An image of the reconstruction can be seen here.
Because of the revelations received there and how defining it was for Joseph Smith, the Liberty Jail is considered a sacred site for Mormons. Susan Howe's play, Burdens of Earth explores the time just before their escape, at the lowest point for Joseph Smith when he is questioning himself.
There are three different kinds of scenes within this play. The first type of scene takes place in Joseph Smith's present, in the jail. The second type of scene takes place in his memory or in the memories of others. The third type of scene takes place in his imagination, thinking what if I had done "this" differently. For much of the play, Joseph is upstairs writing at the jailer's desk while his companions are huddled for warmth down below. There is a single candle upstairs for light and a small lantern in the dungeon below.
During the play, the four companions of Joseph Smith portray themselves in the present and other people in the flashbacks or imaginary scenes. Sometimes they portray sympathetic characters and sometimes they portray belligerent characters.
The climax of the play is when Joseph Smith receives the revelation that becomes the 121st, 122nd and 123rd sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. The incarceration of Joseph Smith changed him and he became even more committed to the safety and security of the Saints than he had been previously. He also became more serious and driven as a leader.
About the Set
Richard Clifford, the scene designer and Roger Merrill, the director took a research trip to Liberty, Missouri to see the jail and to take measurements and learn as much as they could about it. They decided to create a full sized replica of the actual reconstruction of the jail in the Snow Black Box Theatre. It was an impressive set. The Snow Black Box Theatre is large enough that the full sized replica could fit inside.
There was a rampart down below that showed the foundation of the jail and it was used during the flashback scenes as a path or a work space.
|The set for Burdens of Earth|
The Lighting Design
For the scenes set in the jail in the present, the lighting was pretty straightforward. The scene designer had a single candle in the room upstairs for a light source and a small lantern downstairs. In addition, there were the four windows in which moonlight could stream for motivational light sources.
Since the play took place at night, I was able to use minimal directional lighting for these scenes and fill them with blue light.
|Motivational lighting on Joseph and Hyrum Smith|
|Candlelight coming from the left, moonlight coming from the right|
|Motivational light in the dungeon,|
|Lighting the upper and lower levels|
|Pink light on floor is a window gobo just before dawn|
|Moonlight from the window|
I lit the memory scenes and the "what if" scenes in much the same way. Some of those scenes were happy memories and some of them were not so happy. This play takes place during the "1838 Mormon War" in Missouri. Some of the depredations of that war are dramatized.
I chose soft, warm light to dramatize the happier memories, sometimes with leafy breakup to show an exterior scene. Because of the cantilever of the upper floor over the lower room and because there were walls covering the sides of the jail, I had to install some low profile small fixtures into the beams of the floor to get light inside.
During many of the scenes inside Joseph's head, he was an observer. It may have been something he witnessed, or it may have been something he heard about later. Most of those scenes played out on the lower level with Joseph standing or sitting on the upper level. I lit Joseph in the present and the other actors in the memory for those scenes.
|Oliver Cowdrey comes to the Smith home|
|Joseph and Hyrum in the present, Oliver in the memory|
|Joseph lamenting the alienation of Oliver Cowdrey|
|Foliage breakup on memory scene on rampart|
|Dark memory scene on rampart|
|Memory scene played on dungeon floor|
|Violent memory, blood red light with leafy breakup|
|Remembering a member who left|
|Coming into the light|
|Interior scene in memory|
|Remembering a happier day|
I enjoyed working on this show. It had been an original script first played at BYU in Provo, Utah in 2001. It seemed to be an honest exploration of Joseph Smith and his companions rather than being sentimental, which so many scripts like this tend to be. We had a solid cast, great designs and a very good production. It was a pleasure to work on.
|At the climax of the play. Always darkest before the dawn|
Directed by Roger Merrill
Scene Design by Richard Clifford
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Sound Design by Antonia Clifford
Technical Director: Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director: Patty Randall