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Actors give pioneer journals life

Pioneer journals and diaries seemed to come alive July 27 in Oakland, Calif., in a reader's theater production portraying the arrival of the first Saints in California 150 years ago.

Sponsored by the Walnut Creek California Stake and presented at the Oakland Interstake Center adjacent to the Oakland Temple, "Sails Set for Zion" depicted the 1846 voyage of the ship Brooklyn from New York around South America's Cape Horn and eventually to San Francisco, then called Yerba Buena.An estimated 1,200 people, including some 400 descendants of the Brooklyn pioneers, attended the production and a reception that followed. The production included a special presentation of sacred music by Ariel Bybee McBain, lyric mezzo-soprano for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

"Sails Set for Zion" opened on a small stage with simple lighting and virtually no props. The action began with a modern-day mother and daughter discussing the contents of an old trunk belonging to a Brooklyn pioneer ancestor. Their talk faded into the past as the mother, representing the ancestor, took a place among the people boarding the ship in New York in February 1846.

Actors in pioneer dress recounted the personal stories of the voyagers. Three narrators to the rear of the stage related the account of the journey between the anecdotes.

The cast was joined on stage by a choir for the musical portions of the production. They were accompanied on the piano by Virginia Walker, choral director.

Writer Myrtle Van Vliet said the script took her eight months of research to compile after receiving the request last summer from Walnut Creek stake leaders. She studied original diaries, journals and other writings from the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers to complete the work.

"This developed into the story of all the 238 passengers of the ship Brooklyn as told through the voices of four couples on board," said Sister Van Vliet. "Many of the words in the script are actual lines drawn from the passengers' personal diaries."

Patti Mortensen, director of the production, said the 150 years in California Committee asked the Walnut Creek stake to develop a performance for this summer that would honor the Brooklyn pioneers.

"This was a big challenge," Sister Mortensen said. "It was hard to assemble the cast and schedule for rehearsals, but once we got into the history of the pioneers, much of which was unknown to us, we were caught up by the spirit of the work.

"It became a real labor of love to do proper tribute to these remarkable people," she added.

Sister Mortensen was joined by Roseanne Nieto, producer, and Elaine Lauder, public affairs representative for the Walnut Creek stake, in preparing "Sails Set for Zion" for the sesquicentennial.

At a reception following the production, Brooklyn descendants were presented with a print of an original painting of the ship by Bud Nebeker, which Elder Novel "Bud" Alexander of the Temple Hill Public Affairs Committee commissioned for the sesquicentennial.

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