Being a Mormon is interesting,” says playwright/screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson. “Mormons are interesting and weird... but we’re a hard audience. We want to be uplifted and not challenged... but I think a good play should be both uplifting and challenging.”
She’s a practicing Mormon with a unique perspective and a complex background.
Leilani Larson is a Hawaiian/Swedish name because Melissa grew up in a melting pot community in Hawaii, the daughter of a Filipino mother and a Swedish/English father. The family moved to Salt Lake when she was twelve and she admits to feeling very “other” here. “I feel in and out of suburban white America... I’m trying to own my culture more. People have asked me if I’m Native American, if I’m Polynesian, or Tongan. I’m the only Filipino writer in Salt Lake and I feel the need to find the Filipino in myself. It’s something I’m working on.”
Being “unfamiliar” as a person, propels her to seek out stories that are “unfamiliar... or untold....” Often they’re historical. “I like to do research, to dig and discover. I filter history through my own experience... I write things I would want to go see... especially stories about interesting, complicated women.”
At the intersection of Mormonism and interesting, complicated women, Larsen created Jane and Emma, the screenplay for the independent feature about the relationship between the wife of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, and one of its first female Black members. “In my research I found a couple of lines that hinted at a friendship between these two women, so I decided to explore their friendship more widely, and to find ways to make these historic characters relatable to a contemporary audience.” Jane and Emma was released in the fall of 2018, playing in select theatres around the country and Canada, and comes out on DVD in the spring.
Larson likes old-fashioned fountain pens – the kind you have to fill with ink – and old letters. In a blog called Letters of Note, she discovered an unknown, complicated woman named Emma Hauck, which ultimately led her to write Sweetheart, Come, the play which opens in May at Pygmalion Theater Company in Salt Lake. “Emma has schizophrenia and doesn’t know it... she has two little kids. The action of my play takes place in 1909, at the critical time her husband is turning into a politician while she’s unwinding and isn’t sure why. I was taken by this young woman who has this undiagnosed illness and the image of her writing letters, writing on everything all over the room, just would not leave me alone.”
Feeling “other,” being Mormon, yet needing to be “challenged,” is a unique mix, but she says: “I don’t think my life so far has been terribly interesting, and I think that’s a good thing. If I have a boring life, it gives me more time to write. “
Her adaptation of a book about an ordinary child with extraordinary magic, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, will open the new theatre at Utah Valley University in the fall. And she’s currently working on a commission sponsored by the Utah Chapter of UN Women, of an Indian play by Rabindranath Tagore, called The Post Office.