Playwright Jenifer Nii on creating KINGDOM OF HEAVEN for the 2015/16 Season

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, with book & lyrics by Jenifer Nii and music & lyrics by Dave Evanoff, receives it world premiere March 31-April 10, 2016. Subscribe to the full season for only $70!

Social media is a dangerous thing, and one never knows when the right/wrong people are watching.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is proof. In a moment of impulsiveness, after evening spent binge-watching a reality television show about drag queens, I posted on my Facebook page something to the effect that “I wanna write a musical.” There was something so joyful about the television show, something surprisingly captivating about its courageous, stunningly creative contestants; something incredibly inspiring about their stories of discovery, determination, pain, and strength.

It made me happy, this show. I loved the spectacle, marveled at the way those men transformed themselves into such a heightened state of femininity, and was fascinated how that process helped fulfill the contestants in such personal, individual ways. It had a triumphant, celebratory, inclusive feel to it, which was so refreshing and invigorating and nearly the opposite of what I’d been seeing in the community I live in.

Gender issues are still very hot to the touch here, the heartland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the last few years, women (and men) have been disciplined in an unprecedentedly-public arena for questioning their roles, for organizing to challenge everything from dress codes to women’s participation in leadership and religious rites. In January 2015, high-ranking leaders of the Church gave a rare press conference on gender identity. Elder Dallin H. Oaks acknowledged the Church is now striving to address the pantheon of gender identity, stating, “I think we need to acknowledge that while we have been acquainted with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that.”

My intent with KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is not to challenge a religion. Rather, it began as my attempt to answer the question, “Can someone be both masculine and feminine, out loud and in public, in this public sphere?” In the play, the question is borne by MaryJane, a mother, housewife, and faithful member of the LDS Church who finds a new joy and surprisingly profound wholeness in performing as a drag king. However, the ramifications of her pursuit of this new thing—is it a hobby? a lifestyle? an identity?—are felt by her husband Joe and her dear friend Brenda. Each is called upon to examine what it means to be “right” in the eyes of God, family and community—and what they are willing/able to do to remain so.

KINGDOM OF HEAVENIn KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, I wanted to see whether I could fashion a world in which people declined to compromise their core—but who found a way to express and expand it in order to love and live more deeply. Which, at least in my mind, made the most sense as a musical.

So: “I wanna write a musical” went out into the ether. Within seconds, I received a message from Jerry Rapier at Plan-B stating that we “should talk.” And so it began, this amazing collaboration. We’ve been talking ever since: Is she gay? Trans? Would she be ex-communicated? What should her husband do? Her kids? How should her friends behave?

We’re still talking, and my greatest hope for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is that the conversations continue.

Jenifer Nii’s plays WALLACE (co-written with Debora Threedy), THE SCARLET LETTER and SUFFRAGE each premiered at Plan-B, the latter two garnering back-to-back nominations for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg Award for Best New American Play Produced Outside New York. Her play RUFF! received its world premiere as Plan-B’s third annual Free Elementary School Tour. Jenifer spent a decade as a newspaper reporter after her university aspirations to be a concert pianist were thwarted by a pinky finger that snapped three times during a single Schumann sonata. She now trains dogs and writes plays, proudly calling Plan-B her creative home. Click here for more info on KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, including tickets (single and season)!

 

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