Jordan Nichols, Director of New Works at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, sat down with some of the cast and crew of Byhalia, Mississippi to find out their thoughts on the rehearsal process and discoveries the cast had made thus far from working on the script.
Jordan: What was your initial reaction to reading the script? Were there any surprises or moments you found most meaningful?
Marc (Karl): I did not expect it to be so sympathetic towards some unsympathetic characters.
Ashley (Assistant Director): I appreciated the prevalent theme of forgiveness throughout the play.
Evan (Jim): I guess what stood out to me the most were the present and pervasive issues of culture, race, and identity.
Marc: Yeah, there is definitely a misconception that we have gotten past those issues or that we have moved on to something else, but there is still a lot of work to be done on issues of race by people who don’t even realize it.
Evan: Ideally, audiences will be enlightened by the play. I am curious to find out the different reactions this show will have in varying cities around the country/continent.
Marc Gill and Jai Johnson (Ayesha) in rehearsal
Marc: Based off the title, I think people might expect a different story than what they will see. I think they will see/hear things they had not planned on. One thing this play captures so well is the concept of “casual racism”
Evan: I have said things in real life, like my character Jim in the play, and didn’t even realize they could be perceived as hurtful. Even reading the play the first time, there were casual racist digs that flew past me. Like when I ask Karl whose baby it is. As if he would know because he is black. I suppose it is because i have been blinded by privilege.
Marc: I didn’t pick up on that either, but John pointed that out.
John (Director): Another instance is the reference to the woman retiring as the “tall one” and we played it…
Ashley: As a way to dodge saying the “black one”.
John: Of course Ayesha picks up on the intonation and responds accordingly. I mean the whole play is about not talking about the issue at hand. I’m not sure if that was Evan’s intention with that moment but that is what we interpreted.
Evan: I love how quickly the play shifts between funny and devastating. It really is a roller coaster ride.
John: (Editor’s note: Memphis’ Jim, Chicago’s Jim and Chicago’s Jim understudy are all Evans. This is getting weird.) [Playwright] Evan has done such a fantastic job of capturing the voices of these characters. I mean Laurel still talks the way a high school girl would and her behavior is the same. When shes says “I hate you so much” I mean this is a woman ten years out of high school who is still acting and talking like a child. It really sets the tone right out the gate. In such few words, Evan has manged to tell the audience so much about these characters, who they are, and the dynamic between them. It’s the mark of a great writer.
Jordan: Why is Byhalia, Mississippi in Memphis so important?
John: Audiences will know these characters whether from their personal lives – family and friends – or exchanges they have experienced or witnessed.
Marc: I think this show will ring stronger because of the racially charged issues in The South and specifically in Memphis with its history. Race has always been a problem here and it continues to be whether or not people want to acknowledge it. Audiences may have a preconceived notion of small town MS when they come into the play but they may also have some realizations that their own behavior or language is contributing to the “casual racism” in our society.
John: There are so many towns that dot the landscape of the region – Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi. This play could take place in any of those places. There is a sense in the play that life is better in the city, but it isn’t. There is not any difference. Celeste and Laurel are products of Jackson. Ayesha talks about how difficult growing up was and how bullied she was. The play implies heavily that it was all race related, the whole “Puff the Magic Dragon” reference. There may be more sophisticated culture in a bigger city but once you scratch the surface its all the same shit you deal with in this play.
Evan: Even city dwellers who consider themselves progressive and enlightened people, I think , possibly one outcome of this show would be maybe they realize even in some small way that they contribute to the tensions being addressed in the show. That maybe they see themselves a little bit in these characters.
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