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Southern Comfort 

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

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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.

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