`The City of Joseph'

Watching the annual LDS pageant at Nauvoo, "The City of Joseph," one is struck by this thought:

It may just be that Nauvoo the Beautiful was built for the "spiritual descendants" of the early pioneers more than for those who worked so hard and then were forced to leave the fruits of their labors on the bend of the river in western Illinois.This year, an estimated 55,000 people viewed the production during its seven evening performances July 31, Aug. 1 and Aug. 4-8.

In this year's production, Kenny Barrows was chosen to play young Joseph Smith. The 16-year-old from Salt Lake City had come to Illinois hoping to be a dancer. But, he's glad he got to play the part of Joseph.

"It's given me a special feeling for the Prophet who restored the gospel to the earth in our day," he said. And a special feeling for this place that he loved.

More than 500 members of the Church from 19 states and 105 cities assembled in Nauvoo to rehearse and prepare this year's production of the musical pageant, which is now in its 23rd year.

Most of them came as families, from the very young to the fairly old. They paid their own expenses and made their own costumes. Some came despite hardship. Many sacrificed to be a part of the production.

Each member of the cast, like Kenny, had a special feeling for Nauvoo, for the Prophet Joseph and for those early Saints who helped build a mighty city on a magnificent river.

The pageant tells the story of this unique city in the history of the American frontier and of the prophet who conceived it and inspired its construction. It grew from a swamp with one or two log houses in 1839 to a city of about 10,000 people just five years later, and one of the 10 largest cities in the United States.

The site for this event is a grassy hill overlooking a wide bend in the Mississippi River. On a five-level stage more than 300 feet in length, the musical depicts the beauty of Nauvoo's setting ("nauvoo" is a Hebrew word meaning beautiful place). It describes the industry and labor of its making. It honors the early missionaries who left from this place to teach the gospel around the world. It pays tribute to the faith and works of the women who played a significant part in the city's construction. It expounds the practical application of Mormon theology. It presents the mostly historical vignettes with colorful visual imagery, lively dance, humor and faith.

Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy and president of the North America Central Area said: "In one sense Nauvoo was the real foundation of the Church. It was here the first functional temple was built. It was here that Joseph Smith taught Brigham Young and the Twelve how to build the kingdom. More than 300 cities were later built on this pattern, including Salt Lake City."

Elder Pinnock said the purpose of the pageant is to build the faith of audiences and participants. "We want people to know they can go through trouble, trial and hardship and still achieve gloriously. Though Nauvoo flourished for only a short while, the period was a time of great victories."

Many members of the cast have learned this lesson firsthand.

Barbara Acker and her family from Cincinatti, Ohio, have been coming to the pageant for 15 years and have been cast members for three. Her husband, Pat, was killed in a car accident in 1997, 30 miles from here.

When Sister Acker heard the news and left Nauvoo, she said: "I felt as the Saints might have felt when they left Nauvoo. I felt that I had come with everything and was leaving with nothing." This year the Acker children wanted to come back. They felt it was something they needed to do. Sister Acker said: "I came back for my children." (All returned except Tanner, who is presently serving a mission in the Dominican Republic.) "I was able to do it with a lot of faith and my testimony of what this place meant to the Saints." The Ackers believe Nauvoo has given them strength to continue as a family.

Other participants have felt drawn to the pageant year after year. In many cases it has become a family tradition. The Unsicker family from Iowa City, Iowa, had eight children and 23 grandchildren in the pageant this year.

Brother and Sister Unsicker, who joined the Church after a visit to Nauvoo in 1965, are now serving full-time missions here.

Nancy and Dennis Lowman of Des Moines, Iowa, are converts to the Church of more than 20 years. Their family has participated in the pageant for 12 years. Each of their four children has been a cast member. Two of their daughters have served missions, one daughter is currently in the Missionary Training Center, and their son is attending BYU this fall. All have felt their Nauvoo experience was an integral part of their spiritual development. Nancy has served the pageant as assistant to the creative director.

Chris Frogley from Davenport, Iowa, played the mature Joseph Smith this year. He has played the part of the Prophet several times before and is also second counselor in the pageant presidency. He and his family, descendants of Hyrum Smith, have been mainstays of pageant participation.

Jim and Tanya Skeen from Charlottesville, Va., have brought their family of eight children to participate in the pageant four times in the last six years. Bishop and Sister Skeen have ancestors who were in Nauvoo. The first year they were in the pageant they were delighted to meet four other families and discover that each of the families' ancestors had known one another in Nauvoo. They made it to the pageant this year, but their 12-passenger van did not. The transmission gave out in Kentucky while they were en route.

This season, cast members felt a stronger bond than usual as they worked to put the pageant together. Every participant was set apart as a member of the cast and as emissaries of the Church for the duration of the pageant. Joel Orgil, pageant president from Bettendorf, Iowa, said the settings apart have made an incredible difference. "There were many spiritual experiences prior to arriving at the pageant because of the settings apart, and many participants have expressed more energy, more patience, and more ability to understand directions and make changes," he said.

That spirit was felt by people who came to watch. Jeff and Carla Harris and their family from Lindon, Utah, made the trip to see the pageant and visit relatives in the Midwest. Twenty-six members of their family were present. "I never realized that Nauvoo was the foundation for so many important things that came later," said Brother Harris.

"It was a happy, sad and spiritual experience all at once," said Sister Harris. "I am amazed at how they all worked together and helped one another," she said.

Watching the colorful performance while sitting under the beautiful prairie sky with a Mississippi moon reflecting on the nearby river, one is impressed with the thought that the City of Joseph and the work, vision and sacrifice of its inhabitants live on.

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