Southern Comfort 

Folksy favorites keep whistling 'Dixie' while Horizon Theatre nurtures contemporary perspectives on the New South

The New South challenges the Old in the first five minutes of Negro Dance Lesson, a new play at Horizon Theatre.

Georgette Harper (Nevaina Rhodes), an au courant Savannah socialite nicknamed "The Black Martha Stewart," bristles at the behavior of her addle-minded housekeeper Netty (Donna Biscoe). Netty so embraces the stereotype of the black "domestic," wearing an antique maid's uniform and using phrases like "Yessum," that she might as well be called "Mammy."

When Netty declares, "Dr. Harper gone sure 'nough do well for hisself today!" Georgette becomes livid and demands, "Are you a slave, Netty? Are you a slave living in the antebellum South?" To which Netty responds, "Sometimes, I just don't know ..."

In Regina Porter's play, the Harper household becomes an arena for clashing African-American archetypes, some true-to-life, others deliberately cliched. Negro Dance Lesson is having its world premiere as part of Horizon Theatre's New South for the New Century Festival, which develops works that define contemporary Southern identity and challenge obsolete characterizations.

That's the exact opposite of what many popular Southern plays do, especially in Atlanta, and especially in the summer. This time of year, Dixie-themed theater rings in the old, reviving oft-produced works that celebrate the most countrified aspects of the South.

Onstage Atlanta inaugurates its new performing space with Blue Plate Special: Della's Diner IV, the most frequently staged "episode" of the musical soap opera set in small-town Tennessee. Theatrical Outfit resurrects Cotton Patch Gospel, a reinterpretation of the Christ story set in the rural South, which actor and co-writer Tom Key has performed in various forms more than a thousand times. Stone Mountain's ART Station will present Driving Miss Daisy, which the Alliance Theatre ran for nearly two years between 1988 and 1990.

"It's like a summer festival of Southern mainstays," says Palmer Wells, producing director of Theatre in the Square. For the ninth time in 12 years, the Marietta playhouse is staging its runaway hit gospel music comedy Smoke on the Mountain.

Such Southern scripts span a spectrum from gentle insight to cornpone caricature, but they frequently offer the dramatic equivalent of light comfort food, like a huckleberry cobbler cooling on the windowsill. Even at their best, the "Southern Comfort" plays suggest a homogenized view of the South, a kind of perpetual Mayberry centered around the Piggly Wiggly, the beauty parlor and the fishin' hole. In contrast, just as the people of the South are too diverse for sweeping generalizations, the plays of the New South for the New Century festival convey the complexities and contradictions of contemporary life in the region.

Lisa Adler, co-artistic producing director of Horizon Theatre, has no philosophical objection to work like Smoke on the Mountain but points out, "We're trying not to do that. We want to offer a balance to plays like that. Because we're not living Smoke on the Mountain today. It depicts an idealized time, and it's in the past. We're trying to find and develop plays about who we are today in the New South."

Negro Dance Lesson uses the upper-class African-American Harper family as a means of engaging issues of class, race, homosexuality and identity. It couldn't seem more different from Smoke on the Mountain, which features the Sanctified Sanders Family Singers who testify and perform more than two dozen bluegrass hymns at a small North Carolina Baptist church during the Great Depression. But where Smoke on the Mountain demonstrates how to maintain credibility while staging a Southern nostalgia act, the plays in the New South festival strive for up-to-the-minute relevance.

Before the old-timey tunes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a music industry phenomenon, Smoke on the Mountain, conceived by Alan Bailey and written by Constance Ray, was a hit show, first playing Off-Broadway at the Lambs Theatre in 1990. Smoke and O Brother each take place during the Depression and draw on traditional gospel hymns and bluegrass standards. They even have the songs "I'll Fly Away" and "Angel Band" in common.

But O Brother also brims with cliches worthy of "The Beverly Hillbillies" or Snuffy Smith cartoons, as characters with names like Pete Hogwallop guzzle moonshine from jugs marked with XXX and otherwise behave like redneck rubes.

At first glance, Smoke on the Mountain seems perilously similar. As the Sanders family descends on the "first-ever Saturday night sing" at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, the stage seems populated by stock characters: the hapless Rev. Oglethorpe, ex-con Uncle Stanley, dewy Denise, her dim twin brother Dennis, and the strict, Bible-quoting matriarch Vera.

But while the play features eye-rolling shtick about trouble at the Mt. Pleasant pickle plant, each of the play's characters gets time in the spotlight to reveal dignity beneath their drawls. Michael Beecham, who directs this summer's Smoke and has helmed four other productions of the play, says the characters inspire instant recognition. "I'm certainly not a product of the '30s and '40s, but I grew up in the Baptist church and I knew every one of these people."

From its first production at the end of Theatre in the Square's 1990-1991 season, Smoke has been a smash. Palmer Wells says the runs of both Smoke and the 4-year-old Sanders Family Christmas routinely sell out and require extensions. The theater has produced the show at Southern Polytechnic State University and Kennesaw State University, but, Wells says, "We have such a devoted following, I think they'd even come to see it in a cow pasture. We call the regulars 'the Smokies.'"

The most seasoned veteran in Theatre in the Square's long-term relationship with Smoke is Karen Howell, who as Vera Sanders comes across like Minnie Pearl getting ready to discipline you with a hickory switch. She attributes part of the show's appeal to the fact that they take the Sanders family seriously. "When we started, Smoke's first director, Dex Edwards, said, 'We have to walk a thin line here,'" Howell recalls. "We want to have fun and entertain, but not go so far overboard that we offend the audience. A lot of us have grown up not that differently from the Sanderses, and we don't want to make the people look ridiculous.'"

Beecham shares that view. "When you exaggerate the Southernness, you're not being real to the character. Even in a musical revue, you have to be true. 'How country is the character? How naive or uneducated?' The easy choice for actors is that, because someone's from the country or the South, they're not smart, and that's not necessarily true. It's more like buffoonery than acting."

Nevertheless, the corn is as high as the proverbial elephant's eye in many popular Southern plays. Sometimes the caricatures are built into the works themselves: Pump Boys & Dinettes includes songs with titles like "Farmer Tan," "Catfish" and "Drinkin' Shoes." Other times, it's a matter of interpretation. When thinking of Steel Magnolias, it's hard not to flash back to the phony, vowel-elongating accents of Olympia Dukakis, Darryl Hannah and even Julia Roberts in the chick-flick adaptation.

"There's a lot that's easy to make fun of in the South," says playwright Philip DePoy, whose play Easy, a mystery set in present-day Atlanta, is in rotating repertory with Negro Dance Lesson at the New South festival. "Southern Crap theater takes things in the South and makes fun of them just to make fun of them, like the way Longhorn Steakhouse has the big-haired lady who's the spokesman. Any play that treats any group with a shallow eye and a heavy hand does the rest of the work a great disservice."

Atlanta audiences tend to have a high tolerance for Southern stereotypes, proving more likely to be tickled than insulted by them. In fact, they tend to revisit them time and again just as the "Smokies" see Smoke on the Mountain year in and year out.

"Audiences in general buy Southern caricatures before they see past them," says DePoy, whose work ranges from the gentle downhome musical revue Appalachian Christmas Homecoming to the religious satire Preacher from the Black Lagoon. "The South still has, to some extent, the vanquished mentality of surrender and burned cities. A way out is humor that is primarily self-deprecating. I believe in, and try to engender, a kind of honor and dignity for the South, especially the rural South, because I love it."

Wells says there isn't a lot of crossover between Smoke and the rest of the theater's shows, and the same could be said about its die-hard fans and the theater's other patrons. You might not expect a "Smokie" to line up for something as edgy as Neil LaBute's Bash, which the theater recently produced in its Alley Stage, but Wells says they seldom even check out similar-themed shows like Fair and Tender Ladies.

"Many of them are church groups, and I wouldn't call them our average subscribers -- there's just this one little show that appeals to them," he says.

Attending with the singles group from First United Methodist Church, Bobbie Therrassee has seen Smoke on the Mountain twice and Sanders Family Christmas once, and she looks forward to seeing both of them again. "Some people ask me, 'How can you see a play more than once?' And I say, 'I've seen The Passion Play every year of my life and still get something out of it."

But Therrassee says her group is less interested in Theatre in the Square's more serious fare. "We went to see The Night of the Iguana there, and I'm sure it was a fine show, but the heavy, tragedy stuff just doesn't go over as well."

Beecham concedes that the popularity of Southern Comfort plays is due in part to an indiscriminate audience. "A more sophisticated audience would be turned off by exaggerated Southernisms or countryisms. I don't think a less sophisticated audience picks up on that. I'm not sure what that says to the level of sophistication in Atlanta, but people seem to want to see what's familiar to them."

But Howell defends Smoke against those who put it in the company of the Southern cartoon plays, pointing out that its nostalgic quality is the key to its appeal. "It was a simpler time, before we were bombarded with information, before technology was instantaneous. I think we long to go back to our roots, to simplicity and family and church, to something that brings us together -- and this show brings people together. You don't have to think or be uncomfortable, and you can enjoy music, laughter and warmth. Truthfully, isn't that what we want?"

Clearly, a substantial paying audience wants exactly that. The same instinct was apparent in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, a piece of theater that depicted the South as one big tailgate party. "It's nostalgia, for most of us, for the imagined rather than the real past," says DePoy. "I never went over the river and through the woods to see my grandmother, she was living in the next room. But that's why audiences like them: the past the way we wish we remembered it."

Even when such plays include black characters, Jim Crow never gets acknowledged, and the charming comedy of Driving Miss Daisy is about as serious as Southern Comfort plays get. "Shows like Smoke are fun to watch and there's a sense of conflict, but no one changes. In Daisy, the characters go through significant emotional changes," says Beecham, who's also directing Daisy at ART Station. "I think that Driving Miss Daisy deals with universal issues about racial relationships that are very deep and profound." But he concedes that Daisy is more micro than macro. "It's a true picture of racial relations between these characters, but it's probably not a true picture of racial relations in Atlanta."

When playwright Regina Porter graduated from high school, she wanted to escape her Southern roots. The aspiring writer left her hometown of Savannah to attend New York University's Tisch School of the Arts so she could get out of the shadows of Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor.

"I wanted to move away from Southern writing and language, because I was afraid of being pigeonholed as a 'Southern writer,'" she says. "But then I saw that classmates of mine, who'd never even been to the South, were trying to write that way. I realized that because I already knew about the South, I should be the one to do it."

When she set out to write Negro Dance Lesson, Porter explicitly intended for it to address contemporary tensions of race and class in Savannah. "There's a feeling that time has stood still," Porter says. "The class system, the issues of old money vs. new money, can be as stifling for whites as they are for blacks. I don't want to knock where I'm from, but I think a lot of people move from there because it can be stifling."

Despite its moments of stylized choreography, Porter says Negro Dance Lesson is more about wordplay than footwork. "The dance is not so much literal as a dance of language." For instance, she says, "Some people bristle at the thought of being called 'African-American.' My father would be more comfortable being called 'Negro,' even though 'Negro' has connotations of class and class boundaries that others don't like."

In the play's primary subplot, Georgette takes in young ex-con Davon (K. Jamez Rogers) and, as in Pygmalion or Six Degrees of Separation, teaches him to conceal his streetwise nature beneath a mask of sophistication -- instructing him, for instance, to say "ask" instead of "axe." Davon resists Georgette's high society training, snarling, "I'll take my pathetic ass over your cultured ass any day of the week."

Horizon Theatre founders Lisa and Jeff Adler established the New South for the New Century Festival in 1999 as a means of developing relationships with up-and-coming playwrights like Porter. In addition to fully staged productions, the festival features readings and workshops for works-in-progress. Negro Dance Lesson was in development at Horizon for two years before it was staged.

While the New South for the New Century's mission is to celebrate "voices speaking from, for and about the South," Adler says writers needn't worry if their works are "Southern" enough. "We choose playwrights who are Southerners or writing about the South, so that affects our selection of the work, but not the work itself." Past and current participating writers such as Atlanta's Steve Murray, Janece Shaeffer and Larry Larson don't always address the South with a capital S, but invariably they explore different pressures brought to bear on the Southern character.

Some of the festival's "alumni" have received national attention, such as Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl, which had its first workshop at Horizon and debuted at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Lisa Adler sees such successes as a fringe benefit. "Our intention is to build relationships with playwrights. A lot of other national play festivals tend to be just workshops, but until a writer sees a play fully produced, they can't move on, they can't grow as writers. We have a commitment to give full productions to plays in our workshops, so this festival is really for them."

Adler says attendance at the New South festival has steadily grown. "Over the first three years, we've doubled the audience for the festival on the main stage, and doubled the readings as well." But it's not a self-sufficient event. "The festival costs $200,000, so it's really expensive to produce," says Adler. "The money's mostly raised through our commercial stuff like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," a cheerful, toothless musical about modern relationships.

Which brings us back to the land of cotton. Playhouses re-stage the popular Southern Comfort shows not just to please its fans or to court new patrons. They stage them because they're proven moneymakers that help fund theaters' riskier productions, which tend to draw smaller audiences. Palmer Wells says Smoke on the Mountain and Sanders Family Christmas help subsidize the rest of Theatre in the Square's season.

"The big performing arts are like that," says DePoy. "People call Broadway 'The Museum of Broadway' because they do such old plays, or old-fashioned revivals of shows they know will work. The ASO makes money not by doing new symphonies or new operas, but Mozart and Puccini. That's where the audience is."

DePoy, whose brother plays Uncle Stanley in Smoke, would love to have his own perennially popular show. While not yet a cash cow like Smoke on the Mountain, DePoy's Appalachian Christmas Homecoming is growing into something of a cash calf. "It played at two theaters last year, and is going to be at five this year. If I had four or five plays that were produced that often, I wouldn't have to worry about the electrician coming today.

"Appalachian gets produced in places I'm always surprised," he continues. "Even outside the immediately contiguous Appalachian states, people still like it. It was the biggest moneymaker in the 20-year history of Seattle's Taproot Theater. One of the guys from Seattle said, 'It's like a family reunion -- and that kind of thing is something people in the South do better than people in other parts of the country.' When you can accomplish that feeling in anything, people like it."

While folks line up at Theatre in the Square to get reacquainted with the Sanders, attending a gathering of Negro Dance Lesson's dysfunctional Harper brood is a harder sell. Both kinds of Southern theater can strike universal chords with audiences. But at a hypothetical reunion, who would you rather sit next to? The brutally honest uncle who talks about the skeletons in the family closet? Or the doting aunt who's generous with hugs and gives you heaping helpings of dessert? Given the choice, Atlanta audiences lean toward plays whose message is no more profound than, "Y'all come back now, you hear?"

Smoke on the Mountain plays July 9-Aug. 4 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com Negro Dance Lesson plays in repertory with Easy through July 19 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. 404-584-7450. www.horizontheatre.com

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