"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mississippi–Building Sets for Night of the Iguana


I am now in Columbus, Mississippi and will be here for six weeks, culminating in the 100th birthday celebration for Tennessee Williams who was born here.  I came here to spend an extended period of time because I have always liked the South and Mississippi; and because in the last year I have become re-engaged with theatre.  As those of you who follow this blog know, I have been re-reading all the Shakespeare plays that didn’t take as an English major at Yale, and writing some of my own literary criticism about Shakespeare and the plays.  I had been planning to go to Columbus in any event to get a more extended feel for life in the town, and to continue my explorations of Mississippi which began over six years ago. 

Columbus is a great place.  It is a small town which, unlike many others in Mississippi, the South and the North, is thriving.  The downtown which, six years ago, was active but not alive, is now filled with cafes and restaurants.  A family I met from Newport News was here helping their daughter renovate a space for a new café.  I met, through my hosts, a Mexican-American family who, on the basis of a very successful restaurant, were building a French-style café. 

Every time I go back to New Britain, Connecticut, the town in which I was born and where my mother still lives, I take a tour of the downtown, hoping that I will see signs of life; and yet, there is little more than the foul-smelling Jimmy’s Smoke Shop where as young teenagers we used to ogle the girlie magazines in the back.  Jimmy’s has survived because he has the Peter Pan bus franchise, and the Boston-NYC busses all stop in New Britain, fuel up with candy bars, cokes, and girlie magazines, and head south.  There is a Jamaican restaurant, two nail places, an odds-and-ends notion shop, a diner serving the locals and the bus traffic, and that’s it.  The State of Connecticut put its Appeals Court in New Britain, so in that part of town there are a few coffee shops, but the downtown is still sputtering.  The grand Bank Building, this great 19th Century gem of high ceilings, imposing murals, marble and polished brass is unused and unsold.  The other 19th century buildings downtown are empty.  There is new small industry, but it is located on the outskirts, and its families go to the malls at Corbin Corners.

So Columbus is a delight.  I have been to so many blighted, decaying small town centers in search of themselves, like Helena, Arkansas across the Mississippi from Hernando, relying on floating casino trade, but with a downtown by the levees that is hoping for a tourist influx because of its blues festival, but so many towns in Mississippi on the other side of the river in real Delta Blues country are trying to do the same, Helena has little chance.

Cleveland, Mississippi is alive and well – although without the vibrancy of Columbus – because of a hospital and a junior college.  Greenwood, Mississippi is the home of Viking Stoves, Cottonlandia – a living historical museum of cotton in the Delta – and some great restaurants.  It is alive and prospering because of Viking, and a regional hospital.  Laurel has a great modern art museum.  Clarksdale is the home of the blues…Belzoni is holding its own as the Catfish Capital of the World; and on it goes.  Small towns struggle to regain or retain the integrity they once had, the employment base, the cultural amenities, the life and leisure of community.   Columbus has found the key.  It has a university – The Mississippi University for Women – now co-educational and known throughout the region as a quality academic institution.  In my few days here, I have met many young people who have graduated from the Theatre Department of the “W” as the university is called and who feel that the university has given them an opportunity and a solid foundation for the future.  Columbus is near an air base and not far from Mississippi State in Starkville; so it has the infrastructure necessary for longevity and progress.

Columbus also has an active community.  Because the descendants of the families who settled here are still here, there is a sense of place and history; and the desire to see history extended is noteworthy.  If one wants only the survival of a place, industry, public and private institutions may be enough; but to assure the continuity of the special culture and traditions of a small town with a living history back to 1821 when it was chartered but long before that with the settlements of Hernando de Soto in the 1500s.  In Columbus, as in many towns of the South (and I suspect all over the country), people know everyone.  I was taken on a tour of some of the most spectacular Victorian and antebellum houses of the city, but it was the narrative of my guide which was the most remarkable.  He told me the history of every family in every house, how they came to Columbus, how they made their fortunes, and what has become of them.

Which leads me to my carpentry.  One of the main reasons I came back to Columbus was to help out and participate in the 100th birthday celebration for Tennessee Williams.  During the Festival week (first two weeks of September), there will be performances, readings, visitations of Williams-related homes and churches, and a series of performances of NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, especially chosen because of the character of Nonno, modeled after Williams’ grandfather whom he loved and respected.

I offered to help out however I could, and was invited to help build the sets.  OK, I said, anything to help.  That’s why I am here.  Little did I know that it was actually building the sets – hammering, drilling, screwing, sawing.  I have never sawed, screwed, drilled, hammered, or built.  My life was built around others who could handle these practical aspects of life.  Five hour later, I had learned basic carpentry – alignment, levels, measurement, and of course hammering and screwing.  We – four willing volunteers – built the basic infrastructure of the set.   I don’t want to this to get around.  In the Mississippi parlance it is called “Honeydew” – Honey, do this.  Honey, do that.  I like my life with no hammering.

There is a lot of time before the performance, and I am told the hard work is now over, and the fun work of putting the platforms on stage, building (simple!) the theatrical walls, arbors, etc. is about to begin.  I am in it for the long run.  I will fill in for any of the theatrical parts, backstage and on stage.  I will schlep and cheer.  I am part of a theatrical production for the first time in my life in place I like, for a playwright I admire.

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