SALT LAKE CITY – The life story of a black Mormon pioneer so inspired Keith N. Hamilton that he began saving his money.
More than seven years later, Hamilton is using his own cash and resources to produce the theatrical work "I Am Jane," Margaret Blair Young's play about Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a stalwart Saint who is considered by many to be the matriarch of the LDS black community more than a century after her death.
Hamilton, a Mormon convert, said the play was "a 6-figure budget endeavor." But no matter the cost or how many pay to see the show, the journey has been worth it for the criminal trial lawyer.
"It's a special pioneer story. I feel almost obligated to tell the story," said Hamilton, who plays one of the lead roles and is the executive producer. "I could tell people to come so I could get my investment back, but the truth is this experience has made me a better person. I want to emulate who she was. I love that woman."
The curtain goes up at the Grand Theatre starting Wednesday, June 9, and runs through Saturday, June 19. "I Am Jane" will also be performed July 22-31 at the Covey Center for the Arts. For more information, visit this the I Am Jane Foundation website.
Jane's role will be filled by Tamu Smith. Hamilton will play the role of Jane's husband, Isaac James. Abe Mills, a member of the music group Jericho Road, will be Elijah Abel. The play is directed by Lisa Edwards. The cast will also sing a score of gospel spirituals. Hamilton's goal is to see the play become a annual event.
The timing of the play also commemorates the 32nd anniversary of the day The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced a revelation granting the priesthood to all worth males regardless of race.
The story of Jane Elizabeth Manning James is one of faith, patience and remarkable endurance.
As a young girl, she was raped and chose to raise the resulting child.
After she and her family joined the church, they walked more than 800 miles to be with the Saints in Nauvoo, Ill.
She lived with the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, and was invited to be sealed to them as their child. Unfortunately, Joseph was killed at Carthage Jail before it could happen.
After giving birth at Winter Quarters, Neb., she was part of the first company to enter the Salt Lake Valley.
After arriving in Utah, she and her family suffered from cold and hunger before establishing a home and farm.
She and her husband, Isaac James, had seven children before he left her and didn't return for 20 years.
Despite not being able to enter the temple herself, Jane James contributed to the building of the St. George, Logan and Manti LDS temples.
Countless hours of research have been done to assure the play is historically accurate, Hamilton said.
"I have never been involved with a story where the central figure is such a Christ-like human being. Her story can resonate with people on so many levels," he said. "She had so much strength and courage. She was spiritual and forgiving. She had had faith beyond what many could endure and she lived at a time when being black and being a woman was a subservient role."
Since her death in 1908, Jane's posterity has left the LDS Church.
"They weren't treated very well," said Louis Duffy, Jane's 62-year-old great-great-grandson, referring to why the family has since embraced other faiths. "Religious equality did not seem to be of equal stance. It's unfortunate..."
Duffy, who has studied Jane's life extensively and is the family historian, is flying in from Los Angeles to see the play and spend a few days in Salt Lake City. He is looking forward to the play.
"I have read a version of the play and enjoyed it," said the retired flight coordinator for Delta Airlines. "It's rather surreal to see your ancestors portrayed on a stage. It's somewhat overwhelming. It's a very unique experience."
In previous visits to Salt Lake City, Duffy was able to see where his ancestor used to sit in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
"We grew up knowing about Jane and her life. Mother shared with us that she and her brother had special seats in the tabernacle. It was neat to see where Jane used to sit," Duffy said. "She is the matriarch of the family, an extremely special person with unbelievable strength and perseverance."
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