Celestine Sibley chronicled life in the South in a career that spanned more than 20 books and roughly 10,000 columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Across the region and the decades, she celebrated the colorful, folksy, all-but-disappearing region, but of the billions of words she wrote, she objected to "eccentric" to characterize herself, her writing and her lifelong subject.
Sibley offered a substitute for the term in the title of her 1988 memoir, Turned Funny, to be staged in a new, theatrical version at Theatre in the Square (Aug. 9-Sep. 24). As a young girl growing up in Pensacola, Fla., Sibley befriended Miss Derby, the kind of impoverished, bedraggled "waving lady" who liked to cheer on the ships as they entered and left the bay. In the play, the young Celestine asks her mother whether Miss Derby is as crazy as the taunting schoolboys suggest.
Muv: "She's just what we call 'turned funny.' That's all."
Celestine (to the audience): "That's it. Not crazy, not eccentric -- just turned funny."
Muv: "We have to foster a patience with the turned funny. We have to enjoy their foibles. Every family in the South has a few funny relatives. Some have a piquant singularity, others are behind bars. But from Miss Derby you might learn to value them because they are more interesting than the run-of-the-mill mortal."
Adapted by Atlanta playwright Phillip DePoy, Turned Funny evokes the genuine hardships of Sibley's life while revealing her as more than a Meemaw-on-the-porch type writing books with titles like Mothers Are Always Special.
"It's really about her early family life and career, her husband's careers and her relationship with Ralph McGill," says Linda Stephens, who plays Sibley. The play encapsulates Sibley's first marriage to an alcoholic, her struggles to raise three children, her achievements as a reporter and editor (at a time when women were a rarity in the newsroom), as well as some of her quirkier traits (like her passion for murder trials).
Sibley achieved a larger-than-life status matched by few other Atlanta writers. Columnist (and former Creative Loafing staffer) Doug Monroe, himself a long-time observer of Atlanta, remarks, "Celestine Sibley and (fellow AJC columnist) Lewis Grizzard really found their way into the hearts of readers more than any Atlanta writer since Margaret Mitchell. There have been other great writers, sure, but none of them became iconic the way Celestine and Lewis did."
The world-premiere production strives to evoke Sibley's work and personal life by faithfully transferring her voice from page to stage. "When the book is the autobiography of a beloved writer, the playwright would be an idiot to rewrite what's already great," says DePoy. "My job is to select the moments in Celestine Sibley's life that I thought would best tell her story, and to use her words as much as possible."
Stephens faces the challenge of playing Sibley across the decades. "At first I play Celestine at 4 years old, then at 7, then as a teenager and so on," says Stephens, a former Atlantan renowned for her work on Broadway. "The play is theatricalized, as she goes in and out of remembering events of her life."
Directed by Fred Chappell, Turned Funny evokes the flow of Sibley's memory by having minimal sets and props, casting two actors as the rest of the supporting roles. Jill Jane Clements plays Muv and all of the six other female characters, while Ric Reitz plays all 10 male characters, including Sibley's two husbands and legendary, crusading Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill. Turned Funny also cultivates a Southern texture with a three-piece bluegrass band that plays a mixture of Sibley's favorite songs, parlor ballads and Sacred Harp compositions, some original by DePoy.
Stephens says she fell in love with Sibley while preparing for the part, particularly when listening to an audiotape the author recorded shortly before her death. "Her life is extraordinary," Stephens says. "In playing her, I've some parallels in my own life that I can use. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and so did she. The play has a theme of how she was always looking for home until she found 'Sweet Apple,' her cabin in Roswell."
Though Sibley lived on 13th Street most of her life, she found universal themes in small, quiet observations at Sweet Apple. Chappell sees Sibley's "joy and awe at the world" as the key to her lingering appeal: "She was so observant of things around her; she would find life lessons in the seemingly petty things we do. She echoes all her lives."
Chappell currently teaches at Florida State University's School of Theatre and briefly met Sibley when he served as artistic director of Alliance Theatre, where he worked with Stephens on many productions in the 1970s and '80s. He believes that Sibley's work evokes a kind of Atlanta that's passing us by. "Recently we visited Sweet Apple and spoke to Celestine's daughter Susan about the homogenization of the whole world. Susan said, 'You just don't hear Southern accents like you used to.' Atlanta has a reputation for a place that's always growing and changing. I've been away for 20 years and wanted everything here to be kept the same. Re-reading Celestine made me hungry for that old Atlanta, wishing it was still around."
Theatre in the Square's artists hope Turned Funny will renew interest in Sibley's work, which celebrates the most positive, authentic aspects of the South, qualities that feel further remote the more Atlanta sprawls. Sibley's writing makes Sweet Apple seem like more than just the home she always wanted. It's like the home for all of us.
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