There is no doubt that had 2020 not been beset by a pandemic, many Utah organizations would have celebrated publicly the coinciding hallmark anniversaries of three events in the history of the state’s women: the 150th anniversary of Utah as the first place where women had the right of enfranchisement in the U.S.; the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which banned race-based discriminating in enfranchisement laws.
In downtown Salt Lake City, a 5,000-square-foot mural honoring more than 250 women who have made an impact in Utah is on the east side of the Dinwoody Building (37 West 100 South). The Utah Women mural was created by Jann Haworth and Alex Johnston’s with contributions from 178 artists.
One of Utah’s best known independent theatrical companies for advancing the works of and performances by women, Pygmalion Productions has produced a richly informative documentary style theatrical piece, If This Wall Could Talk. It emphasizes the breadth and depth of women’s pioneering roles in so many realms of life in Utah, interspersing enlightening, relevant counterpoints between the past and present.
Directed by Teresa Sanderson, the 40-minute video, available to the public as a free offering on the company’s website, comprises a decent representation. There are clips with six women, who are depicted on the mural, talking about how their lives have adjusted to the pandemic and their plans as restrictions and social distancing protocols are relaxed and eventually lifted. They include Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City mayor; Dr. Kristen Ries, a leader in HIV/AIDS treatment; Linda Smith, one of the founders of Repertory Dance Theatre; actor and singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin; playwright Julie Jensen and Jensie Anderson, University of Utah law professor who also has been instrumental in the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Pygmalion Productions’ artistic director, Fran Pruyn, also appears in the video.
In between the clips are short theatrical pieces written by Utah playwrights and performed by Utah actors, which feature historical characters from the mural. They include Juanita Brooks, a Utah historian who wrote one of the earliest and most definitive historical accounts of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, which occurred in 1857. Another is Emma J. McVicker, the first woman to serve as state superintendent of schools who pushed for statewide kindergarten. Others are actor Maude Adams; cultural figure Calamity Jane; Maud May Babcock, the first female on the University of Utah faculty, and Belle London (a/k/a Dora B. Topham), the famous madam who ran brothels in Ogden.
Debora Threedy’s piece about Brooks, acted by Barb Gandy, pops with the respective strengths of both playwright and actor in communicating authenticity of character and voice, as does Olivia Custodio’s piece about Belle London, marvelously performed by Natalie Keezer. The results are just as compelling with the other playwrights — Jensen, Morag Shepherd, Elaine Jarvik and Jenny Kokai — and actors Kay Howell Shean and Stephanie Howell (playing Adams and her mother in Jensen’s astute piece about the timelessness of gender roles and identities), along with other short set pieces featuring Brenda Hattingh and Vicky Pugmire.
Even after the pandemic, the video, which screens on the company’s YouTube channel, will be a solid ongoing reminder of the roots of how Utah female voices have defined many creative expressive possibilities in the Utah Enlightenment.