It's one hour before the New York opening of Sister Myotis's Bible Camp, and Steve Swift, the Memphis-based playwright and actor who created this righteous satire of Southern church life, is worried. "Who am I going to get to lick the vibrator?" he wonders aloud, moving nervously about the Abingdon Theatre's tiny studio space.
Swift is referring to an interactive bit in the play where his character, Sister Myotis — a godly Bible warrior who leads an 80,000-member megachurch in East Memphis — invites an audience member up on stage to mix a bowl of ambrosia salad using a sex toy that his character has mistaken for a hand-held electric mixer. He wants a smooth opening, and although tickets are selling fast, the transition from Midtown Memphis to New York's Garment District has been anything but smooth.
"I've had to alter my performance a lot," he says, noting that so much of his character builds on the call-and-response relationship between a preacher and his or her congregation. "In Memphis and the South, an audience knows that their job is to help build that rhythm," Swift says. "Here they don't know. New Yorkers are really kind of scared of me, where Southerners aren't. I come out and shake hands with everybody, and they don't want to shake hands. They're not accustomed to that. It's a little jarring for them."
Some of Swift's preview audiences have been elderly, leaving him to wonder if he should rewrite his show on the spot, taking out the parts where Sister asks members of the congregation to stand, sit — and lick Cool Whip from a dildo. "I'm really learning how much I depend on the audience to have this conversation with me," he concludes, before heading off to the Abingdon's modest dressing room to don his massive steel-gray wig and 20 pounds of artificial bosom.
Half an hour later, when the lights finally come up on Swift and his Voices of the South cast mates, all fears prove to be unfounded. The sold-out opening-night crowd is diverse, and they howl with laughter as Sister Myotis expertly bends what could have easily evolved into an evening of mean-spirited improv comedy into a pointed and occasionally poignant commentary on paradise and the politics of exclusion.
Voices of the South seems to have brought Sister Myotis's Bible Camp to New York at just the right time. Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet, a pair of Broadway musicals set in Memphis, took home trophies at the 2010 Tony Awards. The Mountaintop, an award-winning drama by Memphian turned New Yorker Katori Hall, is scheduled to arrive on Broadway this fall, and buzz is building around the possibility of casting high-profile stars Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry in the leading roles.
On June 19th, Ballet Memphis received glowing notices in The New York Times for In Dreams, a Roy Orbison-inspired performance at Washington's Kennedy Center. A few days later, Memphis' New Ballet Ensemble was featured on NBC's Today show. 2010 is clearly the year of Memphis in Manhattan.
Jan Buttram, the Abingdon Theatre's artistic director, says she loves Sister Myotis's Bible Camp, because it's "so subversive." The 60-seat playhouse on 36th Street is dedicated to developing new works by American playwrights, but the company tends to do more tightly scripted plays. Fortunately for Voices of the South, the Abingdon's board, whose members include actors Austin Pendleton and Tyne Daly, as well as legendary drag performer and playwright Charles Bush, isn't afraid of risk. "It's a leap of faith," Buttram says. "It's either going to work or not."
Buttram, a Texas native and playwright, is no stranger to Memphis actors and audiences. The local Emerald Theatre Company produced her play Texas Homos in 2005. In 1993, she was playwright-in-residence at the University of Memphis, where she put the finishing touches on Floodwatch, a show that featured a young college student named Steve Swift in the role of a blustering East Texas redneck. The prior relationship had nothing to do with the New York premiere of Sister Myotis's Bible Camp, however. Buttram discovered the play in the same way as most of Swift's fans: She was one of 3 million people who watched a YouTube clip of his church lady performing an infamous routine about the evils of thong panties. Buttram immediately saw the potential for bringing Swift's act to New York.
"When I ran into this character on YouTube, I kept staring at the screen and saying, "Oh my gosh, this kid looks familiar," Buttram says. She also noticed that this "kid" had a show that required very little in the way of a set and could be produced inexpensively. It seemed like a perfect comedy for hard economic times.
Voices of the South's run at the Abingdon has received enviable attention from the media and from New York theater insiders. In addition to having his show plugged by New York Times theater writer Ben Brantley, Swift was invited to read at the Cherry Pit, a cavernous performance space connected to the prestigious Cherry Lane Theatre. More than 150 very serious New York theater folks roared with laughter as Swift — dressed as himself, not as Sister Myotis — read a selection from his script about good Christian sex.
Over lunch at the Chelsea Street Market, Jerre Dye, Voices of the South's artistic director, expresses his modest hope that the Abingdon run will generate enough good press from the New York media to help Voices move Sister Myotis's Bible Camp into other markets. But the reviews that trickled in after opening night were mixed. Some critics seemed to revel in comparing the show and its performers to big hams and other cholesterol-laden foodstuff.
"Please don't post it on Facebook," the Internet-savvy Swift begged his fellow cast members, after one particularly disappointed critic compared the show to a bag of pork rinds. Things took a turn for the better, however, when Show Business came through with an unqualified rave, proclaiming, "If Paula Deen and Mrs. Doubtfire were to suddenly fuse into a fiery evangelical Bible thumper with a propensity to dole out lots of life advice regarding everything and anything under the good Lord's sun, Sister Myotis would certainly embody the possible outcome of such a union."
Jenny Odle-Madden, Voices of the South's founding producer, is especially pleased with her company's collaboration with the Abingdon and expects that this won't be the last time the two organizations join forces. Odle-Madden, who co-founded Voices in 1995 with fellow U of M alum Alice Berry, says she was the rare performer who put raising a family ahead of any dreams about moving to New York or Los Angeles.
"I always said I'll go if somebody will call me. And sure enough, if you wait 20 years and you do some good work, people will call you," she says. And Odle-Madden, who plays Sister Myotis's simpleminded foil, Ima Lone, has every reason to crow. Nine weeks ago, she was declared cancer-free after recovering from an operation that removed half a lung.
Todd Berry, whose character Velma Needlemeyer joined the cast six years ago, shares Odle-Madden's sense of accomplishment and optimism. "I think we've been well-received and are well-liked," he says.
Swift says that New Yorkers are most surprised to discover that his fan base is made up from an unlikely combination of gays and conservative Christians and that his character has been embraced in Memphis, which is perceived — rightly so — as a churchgoing community. "I hope [these seemingly incongruous groups] leave the show having shared some common ground, if only for a few minutes," Swift told the Clyde Fitch Report, a blog that focuses on the convergence of art and politics. "Those who are offended by our blatant use of a vibrator as a kitchen appliance seem to eventually recover, requiring only brief hospitalization."
For the record, Rory Dale, Playhouse on the Square's former sound designer who recently moved to New York, was in the audience on opening night. He helpfully licked the vibrator.
A Memphis playwright's star is on the rise.
Katori Hall graduated from Craigmont High in 1999. She studied creative writing and performance at Columbia University and Harvard, before moving to New York. In 2009, her play The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King's last night on earth, was produced at Theatre 503 in London. And in March, the 28-year-old playwright was presented with an Olivier Award — London's answer to the Tony — for best new play of 2010. She is the first African-American woman to receive the award. The Mountaintop is slated to open on Broadway this fall. Over a mound of apple and walnut pie from the Little Pie Company in New York's theater district, Hall talked about her plays, her plans, and Memphis.
Memphis Flyer: Did you go to many plays growing up?
Katori Hall: I went to church. That's theater, right? That is the best theatrical experience you're going to get. It's hot, and the preacher's up there being the consummate actor, telling these biblical tales and doing all the voices. I was enthralled. ... I didn't get the opportunity to go to the theater until later. When I was in school, they took me to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Nutcracker. I remember being an usher for Playhouse on the Square, so I could see A Tuna Christmas for free.
Did you know then that you wanted to be a playwright?
When I was growing up, I didn't think I would be a playwright, but I did know I was a storyteller. The unfortunate thing about Memphis is that there wasn't a lot of new theater being done. That's the case for most regional theaters. They need a stamp of approval to say that a play is good, even if the play has nothing to do with that community's experience.
How did you make the transition?
I went to Columbia, and I started doing creative writing there. I started acting in plays at the Classical Theatre of Harlem. I actually didn't get along with the theater department, which is run by Barnard [College], because I felt like they kept, unfortunately, putting people of color in subservient roles. I got very frustrated, so I went off-campus. I didn't know that a woman of color could be a playwright.
Did you have any sense that you might be special?
In an acting class, I asked my teacher if there were plays for two young black women to do. And she sat there and she thought and all she could come up with was A Raisin in the Sun. I realized I was going to have to write those scenes. So I was special in that I saw a void, and I decided that I was going to fill it.
When did you notice that people were paying attention to your work?
When I moved from Boston to New York and started submitting my plays, people weren't paying attention to me. It was hard to get readings. But I never let a rejection stop me from writing. To me, it was really all about the work.
What was your first big break?
Getting [playwright] Lynn Nottage to be my mentor. I had submitted my script to the Cherry Lane mentor program. From that point on, I had not only a mentor who taught me the craft of playwriting, I had a friend. It was very important to me to be embraced by a playwright whose work I admired. After that, Cherry Lane decided to do my play Hoodoo Love.
You left Memphis 10 years ago, but so many of your plays are set there.
Why not? There are so many stories there. People crack jokes: "You're going to be the female August Wilson and write a play for every decade set in Memphis." Well, I might, and so what? But that's not why I write.
We have music from crunk to the blues to Stax. You have that as a texture, as a soundtrack to this amazing world that's complex — economically, socially. It's still segregated ... voluntarily. I'm so proud I'm from Memphis but still feel there's a lot of struggle there that needs to be articulated. I'm working on a play — Hurt Village — which I think really speaks to Memphis and shows it in a contemporary light as a city that wants to do good by its people, particularly its African-American population. Unfortunately, Memphis is still dealing with the racial politics of a different time period.
What does it mean when you win an Olivier?
It's the hugest award a playwright can get. Lawrence Olivier was the consummate actor. And receiving this amazing award that's named in his honor is overwhelming, particularly having won it when I won it: I was 28.
There are lots of plays and solo shows based on Martin Luther King's life. What makes The Mountaintop different?
It comes from the heart, not the head. It's about a man dealing with his last minutes on earth and realizing he hasn't been able to do everything he wants to do. And that's something that relates to everybody, not just Dr. King. I deal with my mortality every day.
When do we get to see a Katori Hall play in Memphis?
I have a play called Saturday Night Sunday Morning that would be great as my world premiere there. A lot of theaters don't like to do new plays. But I'm open to having a conversation, if a theater wants to do it.
Thoughts about "Memphis" and "Million Dollar Quartet"
I was spinning the cast recording for Memphis in the car recently, when my 7-year-old daughter leaned forward and asked what kind of music we were listening to. "Show tunes," I told her, from a Tony-winning musical about our city. After considering this for a few seconds, my little girl — who was put to bed every night as a toddler to a different Stax compilation — asked an unexpected question: "Why are they making fun of us, Daddy?"
I had no answer, but I had to agree that Memphis' generic gospel and watered-down pop, composed by Bon Jovi's keyboard player David Bryan, is a pale reflection of the music that made the real Memphis. But now that I've experienced this popular if poorly reviewed show, I can see why historical accuracy and sonic verisimilitude are beside the point.
While waiting outside the theater in the midst of the most diverse theatergoing audience I have ever seen, I overheard numerous mentions of Michelle Obama's headline-grabbing trip to see the show. People speculated that the popularity of Memphis — a fantasy about interracial romance and the birth of rock-and-roll — was related to the Obama presidency and the promise of a post-racial America. As the earnest and energetic musical unfolded, it became increasingly clear to me that Memphis the musical is what Camelot was.
Chad Kimball plays Huey Calhoun — a stand-in for deejay Dewey Phillips. He's a screw-up who loves "race music" and becomes the rare white fixture on Beale, where he falls in love with Felicia, a chanteuse beautifully played by Montego Glover. What ensues is a mashup of Romeo & Juliet, Showboat, and Hairspray that is salvaged by a charming cast — and audiences that want to believe it's all true.
Memphis is held together by a pair of common but troubling clichés: Blacks need a white champion (Huey), and whites need a black redeemer (Felicia and other black musicians). The show, which seems to take place in a world without Sun Studio, is about a triumph of black music that never quite happened, set in a Memphis that never really existed. It closes with Felicia — on the road to stardom thanks to Huey's sacrifice — returning to Beale Street to play R&B at the Orpheum ... in the 1950s. As in Camelot, nobody in Memphis is guaranteed a happy ever after, only the promise that pure hearts really can work miracles.
Million Dollar Quartet, which netted a Tony Award for Levi Kreis, the piano-pounding actor cast as Jerry Lee Lewis, is less ambitious than Memphis. But this jukebox musical, loosely based on an actual jam session featuring Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jay Perkins, W.S. Holland, and (allegedly) Johnny Cash, is a mash note to Memphis and to Sam Phillips, the larger-than-life record producer whose stable of blues and rockabilly artists define the sound and spirit of early rock-and-roll. Following the example set by Jersey Boys, the actors in Million Dollar Quartet play their own instruments. And even if some of the songs have nothing to do with Sun, these cats know how to get real gone and how to work the older, whiter audiences flocking to the Nederlander Theatre into an adolescent frenzy.
What's surprising about Million Dollar Quartet is how the show pits Phillips' pragmatism against Cash's drive to sing gospel and Lewis' conflicted spirituality. It's what gives this featherweight entertainment some metaphysical muscle. While Phillips may dismiss his boys' talk about heaven and hell, he has faith in his reels of magnetic tape. "This is where the soul of man never dies," he says to himself.
Memphis the city doesn't need Memphis or Million Dollar Quartet to validate its place in the American psyche nearly as much as these grade-B shows need Memphis' cultural cachet to put them over. But very few places get to be Camelot. It's an odd, unexpected honor. We should wear it proudly.