Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.
—by Jennifer Nii
I wrote Kingdom of Heaven, a play with music about a Mormon woman confronting questions about gender, faith, and relationships, because I had questions. Over the past several years, our community has faced increasing turmoil about whether we can (or should) accept what feels like a broadening recognition of gender complexity. Our churches are taking positions on the issue, with ramifications that reach far beyond their houses of worship. Lawmakers and courts are scrambling to define (or redefine) a multitude of “rights.” And at the ground level, there are families and individuals who want to love one another but might not know how.
In writing Kingdom of Heaven, I wanted to understand, in a way I’ve not been able to in my own life, whether a Mormon woman in Utah could acknowledge that she is feminine and masculine, and live wholly —from head to toe, inside out— the reality of that. I wanted to explore what might be the ramifications—for her and her family, friends and community.
People I have loved have experienced devastating heartbreak and alienation—torn between the undeniable reality of now and the faith they struggle to maintain in the promises of eternity. With Kingdom of Heaven, I hoped to honor those who strive, even if imperfectly, to find a loving, honest way forward.
For the central character MaryJane, it’s a journey of identity realization, physically and spiritually, and of acceptance—accepting that she is most and best when she is open and truthful. In writing the characters of Joe, MJ’s husband, and her friends Brenda and Liz, I hoped to shed light on another very real struggle in our community —granting equal faith to the people they love and the gospel they hold dear. Which, I desperately want to believe, is a gospel rooted in hope, charity, understanding and love.
This was without question the hardest piece I have ever undertaken. From a storytelling standpoint, I don’t know what possessed me to think I could bring together any two of those story elements, let alone four. I really don’t know what made me think I could do any of that and include original music.
I still don’t know. And the process has been painstaking. I still consider myself a novice playwright, and an even more-novice aficionado of musicals. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold up to any kind of Hamilton-esque/Sondheim/Big Big Musical standard, so right away Jerry Rapier (director of Kingdom and artistic director at Plan-B) said we should do it our own way, create our own sound, do away with any preconceived notions we had about what a “play with music” was.
I’ve written and re-written, and re-written the rewrites. I’ve wanted to punch myself in the face more often than not. But all the while, I’ve been so fortunate. Plan-B paired me with composer/lyricist David Evanoff, who took my silly little ideas and created songs that give depth to the story and convey the emotionally fraught subject matter. Actors Jeannette Puhich, Kirt Bateman and Susanna Risser have absolutely elevated the script. I am so grateful for their talent and patience with me.
Neither I nor this play presume to have any answers. I hope only that its questions are meaningful, and that it encourages dialogue that is compassionate, curious, and open-hearted. I hope audiences enjoy Dave’s wonderful music, and embrace the hope and courage embedded in the very act of drag.
Jenifer Nii (book & lyrics) has previously premiered her plays Wallace (co-written with Debora Threedy), Ruff! The Scarlet Letter and Suffrage at Plan-B Theatre Company. David Evanoff (music & lyrics) is best known to Plan-B audiences as the bandleader for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the composer of six Radio Hour episodes.
Kingdom of Heaven, Plan-B’s first-ever original musical, receives its world premiere March 31-April 10. Tickets and more information: planbtheatre.org