Southern Theatre  


The Road from Dixie to Broadway        

 By Joyce Dixon



On Broadway this week you will find the stage productions of Aida and Jekyll & Hyde.  On Off-Broadway this week you will find the stage productions of A Lesson Before Dying and Dinner with Friends.  What do each of these productions have in common?  Each originated in a southern regional theatre. 

The American theatre flourished after World War I as the Little Theatre movement in England and Ireland crossed the Atlantic attracting southern writers to try their hands at playwrighting.   

The first successful southern playwright was Paul Green (1894-1981), whose folk play In Abraham’s Bosom: The Biography of a Negro (1926) was praised by New York critics and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.  However his Broadway success did not continue through his next projects, so Green returned to North Carolina at the time an outdoor theatre was to be established on Roanoke Island.  Green wrote the play The Lost Colony, which has had a continuous run since 1937, except for the four years during World War II.  The success of The Lost Colony created the movement of outdoor theatres at historical sites throughout the South. 

New Orleans native Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) created strong melodramas for Broadway.  Those many of her works reflected on issues connected to World War II and politics, her southern plays are best remembered.  Currently a revival of The Little Foxes is on Broadway.  The play depicts greed in a 1900 Alabama family.  She wrote a prequel to Foxes called Another Part of the Forest, but it failed to reach an audience.  Hellman wrote two other plays set on the Gulf coast, The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic.   

The southern playwright who was most productive on Broadway and focused primarily on southern settings was Tennessee Williams (1911-1983).  He captured the eccentric nature of the South in strong plays about relationships.  Williams’ works have received numerous honors and awards.  His catalog of plays include: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, and the 1999 Tony Award Best Play nominee Not About Nightingales.  

The southern voice is still strong in contemporary playwrights.  Atlanta’s Alfred Uhry has taken the Broadway audience with Driving Miss Daisy, Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo.  Prolific and successful writer of drama for theatre, movies, and television, Horton Foote's most recent contribution to stage was The Young Man from Atlanta.   Beth Henley carried Miss Firecracker and Crimes of the Heart to Broadway.   

Southern regional theatres continue to give playwrights to chance to make it to the New York stage.   

The Alley Theatre

Founded in 1947 by high school teacher Nina Vance, Houston’s Alley Theatre today is one of the leading regional theatres sending productions to Broadway.  In 1999, two Alley productions debuted on Broadway – Not About Nightingales (Tony Award Nomination, Best Play) and The Civil War (Tony Award Nomination, Best Musical).  Alley’s first fully-produced new musical Jekyll & Hyde is currently running on Broadway.  With the 2001 production of Horton Foote’s The Carpetbagg Children, the Alley maybe preparing for a future run on a New York stage.  In 1996, the Alley was awarded the Special Tony for Outstanding Regional Theatre.

Actors Theatre of Louisville

Founded in 1964, the Actors Theatre of Louisville presents nearly 600 performances of about 30 productions each year.  Designated at the State Theatre of Kentucky, it also claims a strong theatre community.  In 1976, Actors Theatre of Louisville started the Humana Festival of New American Plays.  Among the noted winners that made the journey to Broadway are: The Gin Game (D.L. Coburn), Crimes of the Heart (Beth Henley) and the current Off-Broadway production Dinner with Friends (Donald Margulies).  Margulies’ Dinner was also awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

Alliance Theatre

Founded in 1968, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre made its mark in the theatre community in the late 1970’s with the world premiere production of Tennessee William’s A Tiger’s Tale.  In the 1980’s, the world premiere production of Sandra Deer’s Southern gothic comedy, So Long on Lonely Street, opened on Broadway the next year.  Atlanta playwright Alfred Uhry has had much success there and on Broadway with his plays – Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade.  In 1998, Alliance celebrated its 30th anniversary with the world premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida.  As part of the 2000 Broadway season, Aida received the 2000 Tony Awards for Lead Actress in a Musical (Heather Headley), Lighting Design, and Scenic Design.  Elton John and Tim Rice received the Tony for Best Original Score. 

Alabama Shakespeare Festival

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival moved from Anniston to its modern facilities in Montgomery in 1985 and operates year-round with more than 400 performances each year.  In 1991, Artistic Director Kent Thompson developed the Southern Writers’ Project.  Past SWP productions include: an adaptation of Lee Smith’s novel, Fair and Tender Ladies; Barbara Lebow’s play Lurleen, based on Alabama’s only female governor Lurleen Wallace; and Horton Foote’s Vernon Early about a 1950’s small town Texas doctor.  Another SWP production, an adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying opens on Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre this month.

Through regional playwright events like the Southern Writers' Project, regional playwright festivals, and theatre sponsored contests, the southern voice will remain strong on stage.

Just look at the southern offerings for this season.

The History of Southern Drama, by Charles S. Watson.  University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Tennessee Williams, Plays 1937-1955 (Library of America), by Tennessee Williams, edited by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holdich.  Library of America, 2000.

An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, by Lillian Hellman. Little Brown & Co., 1999.

Horton Foote: Getting Frankie Married and Afterwards and Other Plays (Contemporary Playwrights Series), by Horton Foote.  Smith & Kraus, 1999.

Beth Henley Collected Works (Contemporary Playwrights Series), by Beth Henley.  Smith & Kraus, 2000.

Flying West and Other Plays, by Pearl Cleage. Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, 1999.

A Paul Green Reader (Chapel Hill Books), by Paul Green.  University of North Carolina, 1998.

Humana Festival 2000: The Complete Plays, edited by Bigelow Michael Dixon and Amy Wegener. Smith & Kraus, 2000.


Southern Playwrights Competition (deadline: February 15, 2001)
National Ten-Minute Play Contest (deadline: December 1, 2000)

© 2000, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved