My typical experience with “Southern” plays goes a little something like this: lights up, action starts, shame hits. It’s a process I’ve come to expect when I manage to muster up the courage to go to the theatre and watch so many talented and perhaps good-intentioned people either mock or romanticize the place I call home.
When I walk into Terrific New Theatre’s production of Audrey Cefaly’s Love is a Blue Tick Hound, I hear the faintest trace of banjo music and mentally brace myself for what I am about to watch. A certain scene from the movie Deliverance plays in my head like a bad memory. Then the lights come up, and Cefaly’s characters begin to speak.
I watch the first in this night of four one-acts nervously, waiting for this play to slap me in the face with yet another farcical representation of Southern culture. Only the slap never comes. Instead, I bear witness to one of the warmest, most sincere, and unapologetically “Southern” plays that I have ever seen. The two women in this particular one-act, titled Fin & Euba, remind me so much of myself that my eyes well up. Both Fin and Euba are preoccupied with escaping their current situation; they feel stuck working factory jobs all the while dreaming of something bigger. They are Southern, yes, and the regional idioms they use garner quite a few audience laughs, but they are not defined one-dimensionally by where they’re from. That is, their culture does not overshadow their character.
This idea permeates this production. In Clean, I watch as Lina, a middle-aged waitress, and Roberto, her Italian immigrant coworker, discuss how lonely and insignificant they both feel; in Stuck, a man and woman lament the challenges of online dating, only to find love and acceptance in each other, despite their quirks. When Lina expresses her frustration that her life “wasn’t supposed to be like this,” the statement highlights the working-class issues that dominate Cefaly’s work and reinforces the idea of a South and an American heartland at large that is tired of being mocked or, perhaps even worse, ignored.
Then comes The Gulf, which is probably the most Southern of these Southern plays. Kendra and Betty troll the Alabama Delta, fishing and drinking beer. The situation itself remains fairly innocuous and even comedic until Betty uses insight from the self-help job hunting book What Color is Your Parachute? to diagnose Kendra’s issues. Kendra seems content to work at a sewage plant and fish in her free time, while Betty dreams of moving away and getting a degree in social work so she can work to “save a life from time to time.” In their own way, each of them fears living. According to Betty, Kendra pretends to be stupid so that “nothin’ is ever expected of [her].” According to Kendra, Betty “just wants to sit there with [her] books” and arrange everything “to fit…in some magical futuristic happy place” that only exists in Betty’s mind. And that, as we say in the South, ain’t no way to live.
During a talkback after the show, I asked Cefaly if she actively attempts to undermine Southern stereotypes. She told me that she doesn’t set out to write “Southern” stories. She sets out to write relationship stories. She recalls how when her play The Gulf premiered in Washington DC, reviewers were quick to comment on how ordinary the relationship between these two women seemed to be. “How refreshing,” Peter Marks wrote in The Washington Post, “to encounter a play that does not feel it has to document its sexual politics…in a part of the country not renowned for tolerance.” Saying something like that, Cefaly pointed out, draws attention to the very ideas she purposefully chose not to draw attention to.
“This is not a lesbian play,” Cefaly said. “This is not a ‘blank’ play.”
I have to agree. Labeling work in this way undermines what the audience experiences. When we describe a play as a piece of “Southern theatre,” we unknowingly prescribe preconceived issues and our own perceptions of a region to the text when we should really let the play speak for itself. The play becomes less about the universal messages it sends and more about the specific problems the South faces again and again and again.
That’s not to say the South doesn’t have its problems. Those sorts of politics are embedded so deeply into the fabric of our society down here that often we Southerners don’t realize that some of the things we say and do are problematic. Even I didn’t realize until recently that some of my everyday behaviors were rooted in racial and classist division. I mention all of that to drive in my point: our issues run deep, and often plays dealing with the South are surface level in their handling of such problems. They become issue plays, condemning us for such behavior, or they don’t dig deeply enough into the complexities of what drives people to behave a certain way in the first place. As much as I hate to admit it, the theatre alienates us Southerners when we are the very people it should be trying to reach.
I grew up in a town full of Kendras and Bettys and Fins and Linas. People who longed for more but didn’t know how to get it. People who were raised believing they could do anything and became disillusioned when they didn’t. People who pretended to be less than who they were because the fear of not meeting others’ expectations was too much to bear.
These are not Southern problems. They’re human ones. It’s hard to recognize that, though, when real Southerners and real Southern stories do not seem to fit into the larger narrative of modern American life. We become the Kendra to the rest of the country’s Betty. When most of the country imposes a diagnosis on a region that doesn’t recognize its own issues, the gulf between the two worlds appears. When that same region sees itself constantly belittled by the people who proclaim ideas of acceptance and tolerance, this gulf seems irreconcilable.
In Love is a Blue Tick Hound, Audrey Cefaly attempts to understand, and she hopes her audience will too. She does not call her audience to judge or condemn or even celebrate these Southern characters. All she asks is that we bear witness to the lives of one of the theatre’s and America’s oft forgotten classes of people.
The theatre is a place for truth and empathy. It is a place for everyone. We need stories that challenge us because they actively resist the stereotypes through which we try to distance ourselves from others. When the world feels like a black pit of despair and anger and hate, we must turn to the theatre to prove the world otherwise. As Cefaly says, “the world needs a hug.” It’s up to the theatre to give it. During these especially divisive times, the theatre has a responsibility to show us just how immensely we can love people, despite and perhaps because of all of their flaws. The theatre must build a bridge across the gulf that threatens to swallow us whole.
I think back on the image of the blue tick hound that haunts these plays. “I want a blue tick hound named Jake,” Fin demands, “who knows his name, who will come when I call him, and who will love me, no matter what, cuz that’s what dogs do.” Like Fin, I hope for a blue tick hound, only its name is the theatre: a place that knows the South, that will listen when we speak, and that will, as Cefaly so beautifully observes, “love us no matter how ugly we get” because that’s what theatre does.