Sewanee English Professor and playwright Elyzabeth Wilder recently took part in a roadtrip across the South as part of an initiative from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
The road trip is a vision from artistic director Rick Dildine’s Americana palette. Dildine, the Arkansan former a.d. of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, has an affinity for relationship-building. Dildine believes that people teach the institution, not the other way around.
The current initiative had its seeds when Dildine happened to notice something odd about the mission statement of the theatre’s flagship new-play initiative, the Southern Writers’ Project. Composed in 1991, it read, “The Southern Writers’ Project has featured both acclaimed Southern and African American writers”—as if “African American” was somehow distinct from “Southern.”
“I think it’s automatically coded white,” says Atlanta playwright Addae Moon of the lore of the Southern writer. “Normally, when people frame the idea [of a Southern writer], they don’t think of people who look like me….I had to claim that identity for myself. I’m an American writer, I’m a black writer, I’m a Southern writer. All at the same time.”
Moon was one of the four playwrights in the van, along with South Carolinians Donnetta Lavinia Grays and David Lee Nelson, and Elyzabeth Wilder, an Alabamian who has a long production history with the ASF and the Writers’ Project.
The team was to visit 12 locations from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, both big cities and tiny towns. With each artist captaining a stop, they collaborated with hosting venues like local theatres, art museums, and chamber centers to entice people out. Their charge? To research and rethink the mission of the Southern Writers’ Project to reflect the realities of the South in 2018. For many Southern communities, today’s reality is one of overwhelming contradiction, filled with beauty and oh so much pain, pressurized through the generations.
This story in its entirety can be read here.
Elyzabeth Wilder currently serves as the Tennessee Williams Playwright in residence at the University of the South.