“Whatever That Means”: On Being a Southern Playwright

Dan: It’s the middle of August, the middle of the afternoon, and Beth Henley and I are sitting in a coffee shop in Westwood in Los Angeles. We’re a week or so back from teaching together at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee, so maybe I’m feeling some withdrawal, from the conference, the cocktails, talking with Beth. But this question of Southern writing and Southern writers, so-called, has been on my mind…Are you cool talking about what it means to be a Southern playwright?

Beth: Yeah, with the caveat of “whatever that means.”

Dan: Did you see a lot of theatre growing up?

Beth: I probably saw more than the average Mississippian circa 1960. My mom was an actor, she worked in the community theater at New Stage in Jackson, so I read a lot of plays, Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service, because they were short and I liked dialogue. That was something of an anomaly, I think. Most people from Jackson don’t become playwrights because it’s such a peculiar sort of job. You have to go to New Orleans, or somewhere.

Dan: Or New York. I think it’s interesting that you’re from the South, but as a playwright so much of your career has had to happen in New York City, and yet you live in LA, which is sometimes an odd place to be a playwright. When I tell people here that I write plays—not TV or screenplays—it doesn’t seem to compute.

Beth: It computes like, “Loser!”

Dan: Yeah…

Beth: Is that cake any good?

Dan: I’m just pacing myself. You want some?

Beth: Yeah, I’m starving!

Dan: So have you ever felt like, I don’t know, pigeonholed as a Southern writer?

Beth: I feel like if they’re giving you a job or a prize, they can categorize you any way they want. Like all these prizes are for Southern writers?—okay, throw me one! All these prizes are for women?—okay, throw me one!

Dan: Was it ever annoying to be compared to other Southern writers?

Beth: I remember that, but it was much to my advantage to say I wrote like Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. It was just ridiculous. Great company. They’d be like shuddering if they heard that. I just give it up to people’s desire to categorize. Then they feel like it’s something they don’t have to read because they already know what category it’s in. “Oh, I don’t like that category!” Or, “I’ve already read enough of that category!”

Bess Rous, Glenne Headly, and Bill Pullman in the world premiere of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Dan: There’s a dark sense of humor in a lot of Southern writing. That’s what I love about your new play The Jacksonian [set to premier in January 2012 at The Geffen Playhouse, directed by Robert Falls]. It’s a disturbing play, but it’s also very human and very funny.

Beth: I guess, but if you read Philip Roth—isn’t he dark and funny?

Dan: Sure. But it’s different. It reminds me a lot of Irish writing. I think there’s a special kind of weirdness in both Irish and Southern writing.

Beth: Oh there’s a weirdness all right…I mean, it’s probably less weird if you’re born there though. You know? Because you just grew up with it and it wasn’t really that weird, and then suddenly you’re out in LA and go, “Wow, that was weird!”

Dan: So we were talking about weirdness in Southern writing.

Beth: Well there’s a lot of alcohol in the South also. It’s very much of a drinking culture, particularly when I was growing up. I mean it still is, but not like it used to be, like, “I’ll get you a to-go cup for the road! So you can get from the house to the party!” Never a moment of sobriety! And I also think there’s something interesting about the notion that the South was defeated, and in the face of defeat, humor is often the best defense for humiliation.

Dan: Do you feel like that’s still a big part of being a writer from the South, dealing with that sense of humiliation?

Beth: Less so now because everyplace has opened up like a McDonald’s. But I think there’s something gripping about being so far behind the rest of the country on so many racial issues. Racism’s always referred to somewhere in my plays—well, not always referred to directly, but often, like in Crimes of the Heart, Babe is having an affair with a black gardener.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in the The Jacksonian. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Dan: With The Jacksonian [which takes place in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi], do you feel like you’re dealing with this history of racism in a more head-on way?

Beth: Yeah, more head-on definitely. It’s a really horrifying issue to deal with, and you don’t want to do it. I think it’s so dark for me to go to that time in my life because I was young then, and I was so confused. Because here was your governor, people you were meant to look up to, teachers, politicians, family members, people that fed you and cared about you—who were virulent racists. And you knew it wasn’t right but you couldn’t figure it out when you’re really young.

Dan: Did you always have that sense that something was wrong, or was it more like a dawning awareness?

Beth: It always made me sad. And then suddenly I tried to pretend like it didn’t make me sad, and it was right. Because I must be crazy or something, what’s wrong with me to think this isn’t right when obviously this is how life is? So I think it’s very shattering to grow up in cultural apartheid, for black and white—more for blacks obviously.

Dan: What was it like growing up with so much of the rest of the country criticizing the South for its racism?

Beth: There was so much less information that was parsed out, at that time and at that age. I mean you’d come home and you could watch the evening news. Or you’d have the Clarion Ledger, which was the most racist paper in the country, voted so for like twenty years running. And of course there wasn’t any education about any African-American ever doing anything. The things that were going down, like people sitting at lunch counters and having cigarettes burned into their skin? I wasn’t aware of that part of it. It’s just that my mother would say, “You’re living in historical times.” James Meredith was trying to go to Ole Miss, but from the perspective of our neighbor Kathy Stevens who was a freshman and going out for rush and what’s this going to do to pledge week…? You know?

Dan: Are you saying you felt insulated from all that?

Beth: I didn’t feel insulated at all. I mean you couldn’t possibly feel outside of it. They bombed the rabbi’s house a few blocks away from our house, and our windows shook.

Dan: A neighbor of yours? Was anyone injured?

Beth: I don’t think anyone was injured. But their place was definitely blown up, their house.

Dan: Why specifically were they targeted, other than racism?

Beth: They were Jewish—oh, other than racism?

Dan: Were they activists?

Beth: I don’t know, but they also bombed the local synagogue. The KKK or whoever—The White Citizens’ Council was meant to be not so vicious but I don’t know. Oh, and my sister’s fifth grade teacher was killed. She was working with the KKK and she showed up trying to shoot somebody down, riding behind her boyfriend on a motorcycle wearing like mini-shorts, or what do you call those short-shorts?

Dan: Like Daisy Dukes?

Beth: Yeah, and she got blown away. I’m not sure who shot her or why. I remember the newspaper article my little sister had up in her bedroom with a sweet-looking photograph of her teacher.

Dan: I remember last summer you told me you’ve never written in a nonfiction sense about your childhood.

Beth: Well. I guess I’m not a nonfiction writer.

Dan: But even as a play, you haven’t ever written anything that you’d consider strictly autobiographical, right?

Beth: I think it’s taken me this long to be able to actually write about that time and that place in my life. Because it was incredibly devastating and incomprehensible and terrifying—and just sad, sad, sad…

Dan: Those are some words I’d use to describe The Jacksonian. Even though there’s humor, I think the audience will feel this kind of heartbreak and devastation you’re talking about.

Beth: The notion of the play is, “If you’re living in Jackson, Mississippi, your soul is lost.” It’s like you’re living on top of a swamp of bones and blood and hate. That was the heartbreaking thing for me looking back on Mississippi in that time. I mean there were people who were really extraordinarily brave because they stayed in Mississippi, like Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Willie Morris, who came back to Mississippi and lived there and tried to see the place, and write about it. I didn’t have the guts to do that. Well, also I’m a playwright so I had to leave.

Dan: Well thanks for talking to me about all this, Beth.

Beth: Thanks for asking me. Can I finish your cake?

Dan: Absolutely.

Beth: I love sugar.