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Fabulous People

Julie Jensen: Two-Headed Playwright

A list of Utah’s most talented writers working throughout its 113 year history would not be complete without Julie Jensen, Salt Lake Acting Company’s resident playwright and the mind behind such critically acclaimed plays as The Last Lists of My Mad Mother, Wait! and, perhaps most notably, Two-Headed, about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, polygamy and desire as seen through the eyes of two LDS women, conservative Hettie and troubled Lavinia, whose love for a deceased female friend from her childhood is as essential to the plot as the violence that drives Hettie and Lavinia together.

While many people think the play’s title comes from a two-headed calf mentioned early on, Jensen says “two-headed” is a metaphor for the way a gay or lesbian person navigates the heterocentric world.

“That’s the way you feel; you have one head that goes out into the world and another head that lives someplace else,” she explained. “And if you’re a gay person, particularly a gay person in the closet, it’s exactly split. You have two heads.”

It’s a metaphor with which Jensen can easily identify.

“In my early life I thought there were only two gay women in the world: me and somebody who lived in Seattle,” she explains. “So [when writing Two-Headed] I thought, well, if that were the way you imagined the world to be, and you had no other recourse, you would live in your head and that would be the romance in your life. It would be imaginary.”

Jensen’s interest in LDS history and culture and its intersection with gays and lesbians is closely tied to her own history. Born and raised in Beaver, Utah, she can trace her ancestry all the way back to the railroad’s arrival in Utah during the 1860s. In fact, her mother’s family was originally excommunicated from the church for not agreeing to practice polygamy. Ironically — and perhaps fitting with her description of herself as “more like Lavinia than Hettie” — Jensen somewhat re-enacted her forebears’ struggle when she demanded that the church excommunicate her a few decades ago—a request with which the church, eager in the 1970s and 80s to purge its rolls of inactive members—readily complied.

“I asked them to do it, they were bugging me,” she explains.

But while Jensen’s roots are in Utah, she has lived all over the country, working for producer Norman Lear in Hollywood for five years, teaching college classes in Sacramento and Indiana and earning a Ph.D in playwriting in Detroit, after which she taught playwriting at the University of Las Vegas for several years.

“I jumped all over,” she says.

And during all that jumping, she was also slowly jumping out of the closet. In the early part of her teaching career (which was Jensen’s day job until her recent retirement), Jensen taught at a Catholic college which she describes as “a threatening place to be for a gay person.” However, by the time she reached UNLV’s theatre department, she says he was “pretty much out.”

“I just didn’t talk about it a whole lot,” she remembers. “I wrote what I wrote [frequently plays featuring lesbian leads] and nobody really worried about it, it seemed. I mean, I’m living with my partner now, so there’s no pretense at all. But it was gradual, as these stories go.”

Eventually, Jensen left UNLV and returned to Utah because she had received “two big grants” through Salt Lake Acting Company to write plays, one of which was The Dust Eaters, a drama about the intertwined lives of two families, one white Latter-day Saint and one Goshute, living in Western Utah. While she initially thought the move would be temporary, Jensen has remained in Utah since and considers herself to be more or less settled here.

She also considers herself to be, more or less, exclusively a playwright. To date, she has written fifteen full length plays, of which six are published, and 10 ten-minute plays. Currently, she is working on a commission for Penn State University’s graduate acting class — seven actors and 14 characters instead of the two to four characters Jensen is used to writing.

“It’s kind of fun to play with a bigger palate than is normally the case,” says Jensen, noting that professional theatres are typically reticent to touch plays with more than four actors because of the cost of salaries. “But college productions want a lot of actors in the play so they can give a lot of kids experience.”

There is also She Was My Brother, her latest full-length play based on the life of We’wha, a two-spirited Zuni and two white Victorian ethnologists  — a man and a woman — who meet and fall in love with her while studying her tribe. The play, says Jensen, is a meditation not only on the complexities of desire and gender and the way white people “make up” stories and personalities about non-white people, but a meditation on the problems of being emotionally dishonest. Jensen says she is convinced that the historical ethnographers’ Victorian sexual baggage and their uneasiness with their feelings about We’wah prevented them from writing honestly and respectfully about two-spirited people.

“I’m convinced [the historical ethnographers] decided not to write about it because they couldn’t because of their own Victorian stuff,” she explains. “And had they been able to, maybe it would have changed things for us. When you self-censor like that, it’s frightening what it can do or what it perpetuates.”

Whether writing about Southwestern Native American tribes, Mormons or harried lesbian daughters dealing with ailing parents, Jensen’s work always has one thing in common: it is never anything but a play.

“I like to say that I set out every time to write something else [besides a play], and then in about two pages they’ve said something and somebody said something back and I’m off on the dialogue and that’s the end of it!” she laughs.

“I was interested in theatre very early on,” she continues. “I always think that experiences in theatre, when they’re good, are better than anything else, any other art form. It’s problematic a lot of times, but when it works, there’s just nothing like it. If you write a novel, it’s so distant.”

In fact, she says the same of writing itself.

“My life is writing. I have a partner and we go up the canyon and over to Antelope Island and we travel some, but I’m always thinking about when I can get some more time to work,” she says.

She Was My Brother recently premiered at Borderlands Theatre in Tucson, Arizona.

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