Nevertheless, they persisted: Finding “The Audacity”
Jenifer’s latest play, THE AUDACITY, has had to temporarily postpone its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre. Details at planbtheatre.org
I am not known as audacious. People who know me will tell you I’m a pretty reserved, relatively hermetic person who communicates more and most effectively with my pack of pet dogs than with people. So when the folks at Plan-B Theatre asked whether I’d be interested in telling the stories of some of Utah’s most audacious, raucous pioneer women, my inner hermit whispered, “You are not qualified.”
But I know that I am beyond fortunate to have such support and encouragement, and I’ve also lived long enough to know that nothing that’s really meaningful is easy. So I said yes and waded in and met Josie, Ann & Elizabeth Bassett—three Utah women who ran their own ranches, raised families, and rustled cattle; who lived hard at a time when women were expected foremost to be soft.
I met Josie first. She was arguably the most notorious, having wooed Butch Cassidy and a few other “outlaws” before marrying (and divorcing) an astounding five times, being investigated for rustling cattle and bootlegging liquor and the suspicious death of one of her husbands, only to retreat farther and further from the modernization of the 20th century. Her life inspired books and a film, and earned her a profile in Life Magazine.
I was gob smacked, and also baffled: How did she do it? At that time, in that place, how did a little girl grow into such a fierce woman? Which led me to her mother, Elizabeth, and her sister, Ann. Elizabeth the pioneer who, barely in her 20s and the mother of two young children and expecting a third, ventured West from Arkansas with her husband in search of a drier climate for his sickly lungs. Who gave Brown’s Park, Utah, its name and led a scrappy rebellion against encroaching big-business cattlemen. And Ann, the middle child who refused to be overshadowed—bedding her own outlaws and waging her own vendetta against corporate ranchers—but who did so with a practiced East Coast accent, proudly and meticulously coiffed, adorned in flawless gowns and hats, riding sidesaddle.
I still don’t know if I know the “how” of how these women carved out and crafted their extraordinary lives—precisely how are true trailblazers created? But as I worked on The Audacity I realized why their stories are so resonant and relevant. Now more than ever, women are challenging and defining their place and their role—our daily experiences evidence that we still must. The battles they fought to decide, determine and manifest their passions are our battles still, and we are reminded daily how pernicious the opposing forces remain. For this reason, I so appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to work on The Audacity, and it’s why I’ve built it the way I have, bringing the present on stage with the past.
The Bassett women taught me about courage, independence, and strength of will. With The Audacity, I hope to pay tribute to them and, if possible, highlight how we might draw strength and inspiration from their example. The Bassetts were uncompromising in their refusal to bow before any who doubted their rights or worth. Working on this play has dared me to face many of my own doubts and fears, creatively and personally. It has made me question and commit to developing my own audaciousness, and for that I am so grateful.
I feel like I’ve found a bit of the Bassett in me, and my biggest hope is that The Audacity can do the same for you.
Playwright Jenifer Nii has premiered seven plays with Plan-B: THE WEIRD PLAY, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (with composer and co-lyricist David Evanoff); RUFF!, SUFFRAGE, THE SCARLET LETTER and SUFFRAGE, WALLACE (co-written with Debora Threedy) and (IN)DIVISIBLE (a collaboration with 11 other local playwrights). Jenifer’s latest play, THE AUDACITY, has had to temporarily postpone its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre. Details at planbtheatre.org