Although Alice Nelson says “I don’t want to piss anyone off” in regards to Keep Sweet: A Polygamy Musical, controversy might be unavoidable. Her play revolves around three sisters from the fictional Abundance, Alberta, a not-so-subtle reference to Bountiful, B.C., where the infamous polygamous sect of fundamentalist Mormons headed up by Winston Blackmore resides.
Nelson has been working on the project for about four years, after an article about the happenings in Bountiful sparked her interest.
“I got really fascinated by the subject matter,” she says, and a ton of research followed. So much so that when she sat down to pen the script, it was difficult to know where to begin.
For starters, Nelson combined aspects of the sect in Bountiful and an even stricter Utah sect headed up by the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs.
Under Jeffs’ rule, people in the colony couldn’t wear red, the word “fun” was banned from the lexicon, boys and girls couldn’t talk with one another, and part of classroom instruction involved listening to recordings of Jeffs telling young girls how to act as wives.
Nelson based Keep Sweet’s three sisters upon the women she has researched. “They are all very representative of the women whose stories I read,” she says.
The eldest, Edith, has a cleft lip and a hobble, defects associated with incestuous birth, a common problem in polygamous sects. Edith desperately wants Prophet Waylon (the sect’s patriarch) to find someone for her to marry, but none of the men want her.
The middle child, Jane, is married to her cousin and wants out because she doesn’t love him. (In fact, audiences later find out, she is gay.)
The youngest sister, 13-year-old Mary Ann, is told she has to wed the Prophet’s son. Meanwhile, she has her sights set on a teenage boy, Leon, who comes up from the United States to work in Abundance, but they are prohibited from contacting one another.
Nelson admits she deliberately didn’t include any women in Keep Sweet who are happy with their fundamentalist, polygamous lifestyle.
“Some women are very, very happy there, so it’s one of those fine lines of, ‘Who am I to argue their lifestyle?’ But, at the same time, they’re not presented with any other options,” Nelson says, adding she may include that “voice” in a future draft of her work.
“My big stake in this is the entrapment of women in the sects, and the entrapment of children,” she says. “A lot of them end up being child brides, and that’s what infuriated me the most, the 12- and 13-year-olds to whom the prophet or bishop says, ‘You have to marry this 50- or 60-year-old man and bear his children.’”
Besides the plight of the women in the polygamous sect, Nelson also touches upon the (often unfortunate) fate of the young men.
For example, in Keep Sweet, Leon gets excommunicated for trying to contact Mary Ann.
“This is a big thing happening in the sects right now. Men are being excommunicated like crazy,” Nelson says, adding that the polygamist practices mean there aren’t enough women to go around.
“When you are kicked out, you lose contact with your family and any money because it belongs to the prophet or the bishop,” she says.
There are now some organizations to help these so-called “Lost Boys” get on their feet away from the colony, and that’s the sort of thing Nelson hopes her work will make people aware of.
Despite her experience in writing comedy, she steered clear of satire with this one. (Though there are some light moments in the show, such as a “patter song” — a fast-paced tongue-twister — that Prophet Waylon sings about his 20 wives and 100 children.)
“I thought, ‘I can’t use humour, so what can I use so this isn’t going to be so heavy that the audience won’t listen? And I don’t want it to be pedantic or a lecture, so I decided upon a musical,” Nelson explains.
Stephen Delano came on board to write the music and Kevin McKendrick has served as dramaturge and director of the project.