When I first moved to the new country, the language barrier was a hurdle I finessed by smiling or shaking my head, until a fabric store clerk cornered me and it took an excruciating moment to translate “Miya HEPyew” into “May I help you?”
I was in Raleigh for grad school. I soon tuned my ears well enough to understood the man trailing me down a dark street, whispering loudly about how he wanted to stroke my breasts, until I turned and yelled, “No, because you’re ugly and you stink!” Hey jagoff, I’m from Chicago.
That was my Harper Lee experience.
Later, exploring on my bike, I found a deserted paupers’ cemetery in a pine forest, the graves marked by fading names clipped to metal rods. Some were lined with conch shells gathered from the coast, hundreds of miles away. I picked up a pretty shell and red ants flooded out, burning me to the elbow before I dropped it. It was as if the graves had their own protection from such as me.
That was my Faulknerian experience.
Years later, moving to Georgia, I dropped the literary terms I thought in as a grad student to concentrate on my new life as a reporter, eventually turning to playwriting.
“What’s it like down there?" a Chicago artistic director asked, as if Bob Ewell might be stalking me (come to think of it, that whispering guy looked familiar).
What’s it like? Well, it’s not like what you might think. I’ve discovered The South has amazing voices and terrific stories. The rest of the country may still stereotype the Bible Belt as peopled by Scarlett O’Haras, Mr. Tibbs, Bull Conners, and sultry Shugs, but, for a playwright, it’s a regular chicken jallop of the weird, historic, brutal and beautiful. We ain’t just grits!
Though I’ve lived here almost twenty-five years, I still don’t feel Southern, but I no longer feel Northern, either. I’ve become a cultural hybrid just like the New South, perpetually in transition, where Confederate and Colonial specters waver beneath a churning river of Civil Rights and shopping malls and international immigration mingling with Damn Yankees who brung their coffee shops with’em.
Even sophisticated outsiders often have a dated view of the South. A fellow playwright told me that when she went to see her play about a transgender couple produced in San Francisco, she got the response; “You’re from Georgia? What do you know from transgender?” She was unfazed. As she said, “I’m originally from California. I understand the California mindset.”
We’re typical New South Georgians in that we aren’t from around here. Like other cities, Atlanta’s a migratory nexus. According to City-Data.com, Georgia’s foreign immigration tripled around the new millennium, especially from Asia. The fusion of Dixie and Dharma hit me at a burger joint in the bizarre Bavarian enclave of Helen, Georgia, where a lederhosened waiter with a Vietnamese face and Piedmont drawl asked, “Would yawl like some Wiener schnitzel?”
I’ve grown used to living in a land where the real can be surreal, where an angry neighbor told a friend of mine a few days ago, “If your dog jumps my fence, I want you to know I have a pitchfork,” where seeing a billboard for “Free at Last! Bail Bonds” doesn’t crack me up any more because it’s simply a name that, like the “Po’ Folks” restaurant chain, shows the Southern knack for at poking fun at itself.
This sense of humor can be easily misinterpreted as a lack of self-awareness (which I guess is why “Po’ Folks” changed its name to “Folks” after national ridicule). The Southern sense of humor has a deliberate innocence that can be infinitely shaded. I discovered this when I had a play read in both Manhattan and Atlanta. As usual, I had no prior instructions before these cold readings because I wanted to see how the actors responded directly to the script.
The play’s about a married couple, seemingly hetero, though both are gay. It was inspired by Odyssey House, a fundamentalist program to de-gayify gay men and women located about five miles from my town of Decatur, which, according to City-Data.com, ranks sixth nationally in gay population. Yo! My town’s the sixth gayest in the nation and I live in Georgia!
Anyway, where was I? Right. The couple is struggling toward their first anniversary, but it’s not looking good. It’s obvious they care about each other, but they know they’re living a lie. The effect’s both funny and poignant.
The Atlanta reading was spot on. The audience laughed its head off, but you could see they were sympathetic toward this quixotic couple.
The New York reading died from the start. The actors assumed the characters couldn’t mean what they were saying, and sunk each line with irony. I had to stop them after the first page and ask them to drop the irony because it was too depressing, like watching a birthday balloon go flat.
Another regional difference is theater community cooperation. I’ve heard that the Northeast theater scene can be pretty harsh, but, down in Atlanta, there’s a strong sense of shared mission despite the usual rivalries and conflicts. Atlanta theaters will help each other out.
The cooperation might be born of necessity since, despite its cultural richness, Atlanta sucks in arts support. That can be traced to 1962, when Atlanta’s wealthiest art patrons decided to make it a premiere cultural destination and visited France for advice. Heading home on a charter flight from Orly, their plane crashed. Of the 132 people on board, two survived. Though the Woodruff Arts Center was founded in their memory and the tragedy inspired the creation of the Atlanta Arts Alliance, the mass deaths of those who would’ve nurtured our cultural scene left a vacuum still evident today. Atlanta’s a city high on sports, movies, and music, but low on appreciation for the performing arts, leading some to consider The City Too Busy to Hate as The City Too Boring to Love.
According to the National Assembly of States Arts Agency, in 2011 Georgia ranked 50th in total per capita appropriations for the arts. Fiftieth? For a major city? According to the NASAA, between 2010 and 2011, Georgia cut its arts funding by two-thirds. The legislature’s moved twice to entirely eliminate its arts council and arts funding, igniting vocal protests by the state’s small but ballsy arts community that led it to shelve those plans (for now). One state legislator wanted to forbid counties the option to voluntarily set aside a fraction of a penny in local taxes for arts funding. He didn’t want them to have the option. To do something voluntarily. With a fraction of a penny.
Obviously, backcountry weirdness thrives here, making this state capable of spawning the half-humanoid, half-amphibian Newt Gingrich. That said, Obama came within a few points of winning Georgia in the last election; my red state turned purple! There’s lots of redneck here, but there’s also a strong black population that’s achieved significant political and economic success and is as solidly southern as those cute little old white ladies in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, bless their hearts.
By the way, when you say “Bless their heart” about someone, you mean you think they’re an idiot. See? In Chicago you just call them an idiot, but people down here are more polite. They don’t even swear much. Not even “damn!”
Of course, the South’s still working out some issues. When I called an artistic director in Alabama about submitting a play featuring a closeted gay minister involved in a love triangle, he sighed and said, “I get so many plays about closeted gay ministers.”
And, obviously, there’s still a lot of racism down South; then again, though the first time I heard someone use the “n” word was in North Carolina, the speaker was from New Jersey. It reminds me of going to high school in Illinois; the school was integrated my freshman year, but then he graduated. Racism up north and in the Midwest is less openly discussed, and if interracial couples are a sign of racial progress, I’ve seen far more progress down here.
When I moved South, blazing white Baptist churches replaced the hulking granite Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches I grew up with. Now a minaret’s spire rises a few miles from Georgia Tech; there’s another mosque a few miles from my house, near the Walgreen’s. My kids went to a public elementary school where half the students are immigrant/refugee, where little girls in hijabs and boys with African tribal scars play kickball with locals flashing the latest hip-hop garb (by the way, hip-hop? Born in Georgia.)
Though I’ll never get used to the fact that I live south of South Carolina, I’m getting used to the place. I say “right near the WalMart” as easily as I used to say “going over by the Jewel.” I learned how to cook okra (warning: don’t boil it or you get a potful of mucous). When I checked the state probate court website recently and found a listing for “Marriage and Firearms Licenses” I thought, “Well, why not?” instead of “Holy shit!”
Atlanta’s spawned several mega-malls (shopping’s a mega-hobby here, which I find mega-depressing), but within bicycling distance is an old recording studio where Elvis sang, and a rural store that looks like it’s been around since Woodrow Wilson was in short pants. The past is always winking an eye at you here, like the very tall, very gaunt elderly black man I saw walking down my street one summer Sunday, dressed in a freshly cleaned and pressed plaid long-sleeve shirt, clean and pressed overalls, and a straw hat. I could not help but think that this had been his Sunday best since he was a child, perhaps from a sharecropping family. I’d like to put him in a play. Maybe I’ll throw in the Vietnamese-American kid with the lederhosen and a few rednecks and Burmese immigrants to spice it up.
Maybe I am turning native, but I don’t think so. I think I’m just starting to appreciate this region’s riches. A few days ago I was doing yard work, and looked up as a hawk glided by. Watching him as he passed, I thought; This is home.