Alabama Shakespeare Festival's fourth annual Southern Writers' Project presented not only new plays, February 3-5, 2006, in Montgomery. With new directors of the ASF company and the SWP, the special weekend containing the Festival of New Plays didn't limit itself to presenting works by Southern writers, and there was a key second production. Yet the Project's aim to hew more closely to its original goal of writers in the Southern traditions illuminating Southern and especially African-American themes and heritage got near to fulfillment with one major production and four staged readings.

The major production unrelated to the American South was Frank McGuinness' The Bird Sanctuary, presented on the Carolyn Blount mainstage, also as part of the ASF winter season. Geoffrey Sherman, new Artistic Director, explained that he had been working on the play's development for some time and had an agreement to continue upon joining ASF. It also attracted star power; the leads were Tony award winner Elizabeth Franz and film favorite Hayley Mills.

Set in today's Dublin, the play put forth the efforts to preserve the decaying family home (next to the adjoining titled sanctuary) by an eccentric painter (Franz) as her estranged sister (Mills), an expat with a bad marriage in England, arrives and joins with their brother to sell the house.

In the aptly named Octagon Theater, Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence enthralled with its depiction of an outstanding jockey, a freedom-craving slave at the time the Civil War broke out, and his progressive relations with his owner. Their story is paralleled by that of the slave woman whom the jockey frees and marries and her differing status in relationship to the plantation owner's wife.

An inventive staging with authentic historical details and costumes, this play respected Southern sensibilities and dealt with the universal themes of freedom -- with its responsibilities as well as rewards -- and of love, friendship, gratitude. ASF cooperated in the commissioning of this play with Actors Theater of Louisville, where it debuted in 2005.

According to Geoffrey Sherman, the commitment to a second production is as important as the first if the life of a "new" play is to be extended.

Two sessions of each weekend day were devoted to staged readings of Southern Playwrights Workshop New Plays. Nancy Rominger, Artistic Associate, another recent addition to artistic leadership at ASF, inherited plays in development but also brought in one whose author she had been working with. Love and Other Strange Phenomena was still so much "in the works" that it was listed in the program as "Thinking of You." Better known as a scenic designer, Peter Hicks authored this matinee comedy about a young man, whom romance has eluded, finding that his blind date is a psychic. Connecting with her, because of the nature of her family and especially her mother, and an unrequited love, make for the conflict. Its location in the Garden District of New Orleans flavored the comedy Southern, but lightly.

The hit play among three centered on African-American experiences in the South was Gee's Bend, about the hard life of a woman in a community cut off from most of the outside world by a river and lack of finances and opportunity. Their quilting skills turn out to lead her and her neighbors through the Civil Rights struggle and into home ownership and security after the women are recognized and rewarded as artists. Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, the white Alabama-born playwright, came from New York to attend this first presentation of her play. Several women who lived the story sat with her.

The first and last staged readings had been undergoing development since last year. Their length seemed evidence of expansion of plots and incidents.

Four Spirits by Sana Jeter Naslund and Elaine Hughes chronicled the aftermath of the murder of four children in a 1963 church bombing. A pastor struggling with a personal illicit sexual relationship tries to inspire his parishioners to nonviolent action while trying to reconcile the black woman head of his educational program (who's also his mistress) and two white women who are potential teachers. Threats of internal and external violence plus subplots involving love and lust filled almost three hours.

The even longer final reading, Sanctified, concerned a new young pastor who wants a rousing Revival to revitalize his church and bring in new members. The resistance of his old parishioners, especially an imbibing woman organist and a male singer-traditionalist, heightens when the pastor tries to appoint his "uppity" music professor-sister to direct the chorus. Amid arguments, fights and threatened walk-outs, new singers and others come to demonstrate new songs and modes of singing them.

Javon Johnson's play turned into a virtual demonstration of African-American devotional music, including gospel and hip-hop, with much original music by Ron Metcalf.

In between productions, a Saturday panel on "Fostering New Plays for New Audiences" drew comments on play development from Geoffrey Sherman; Elizabeth Maupin of the Orlando Sentinel and Nancy Mellich of Utah Shakespeare Festival, two members of the American Theater Critics Association that was holding its midyear meeting at ASF; and author Barbara Damashek, of Barter Theater, Virginia. A preceding late evening "Respect the Mik" session in the Patrons Lobby gave vent to free, if brief, expression by local poets and playwrights.

Before the professional plays and productions, the winning entries of a high-school playwriting contest were orally interpreted by students in Rehearsal Hall A. First-place winner, The Last Dance by Caitlin Bach, concerned a couple getting together during their final days in high school. Two women competed in more than a Best Bakers Contest in Laura Braddick's comical The Party Pie of the Year. The plays were also to be presented in Birmingham and Mobile. They are "in the vanguard" of what Gregory Sherman hopes will be a youthful version of the adult Southern Playwrights Workshop of ASF.

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Key Subjects: 
Alabama Shakespeare Festival Southern Writers Project; Nancy Rominger, Geoffrey Sherman
Writer: 
Marie J. Kilker
Writer Bio: 
Marie J. Kilker, Ph.D., is a semi-retired academic, a longtime freelance writer, researcher, grants and project development specialist; and a member of IATC, ATCA and TCG.
Date: 
February 2006