Southern Scribe
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Southern Theatre    

 

Politically Incorrect on Stage

An Interview with Stephen Peace

by Joyce Dixon

 

 
 

To some point the world is producing a generation of guarded writers who check their writing against what is politically correct.  Though that is a "nice" way of seeing the world, it has a tendency to rewrite history and create a bland realism.  Playwright Stephen Peace is "marching to his own drum."

Born in Anderson, South Carolina, Stephen's family moved to Atlanta when he was seven to escape a future in the cotton mills.  Raised in a blue collar district called Little Five Points, Peace has a B. A. in Psychology and a Masters in Counseling from West Georgia College and a Masters degree in Public Administration from Georgia State University.  For the past 23 years, Peace has been employed as a Pollution Control Monitor for the City of Atlanta.  The combination of rural/urban plus insights in the human psyche under a cloud of smog, adds to the twist of Peace's writing, which one actress proclaimed: "He seems so normal to write such strange characters and plays."  His voice in the slave dialogue is such, that his black friends say Stephen Peace "must have some black in him to write his slave characters."  Peace just knows that he "loves being Southern."

Stephen Peace took his first class in creative writing at West Georgia College under Dr. Doxey, then studied playwrighting at the Academy Theatre under Barbara Lebow, renown playwright of A Shana Maidel.  He is a member of Working Title Playwrights in Atlanta and an Associate Member of the Dramatist Guild.

The Old Academy Theatre, which is now the 14th Street Playhouse, has featured Peace in several black box presentation of plays.  Peace was honored by the selection of his short circular play called Death and Dying at a theatre festival in Delft, Netherlands, in which it was presented by seven different theatre companies for four continuous hours.  

A Good Hot Damned!, which is about three dead southern women sitting in their graves talking about life, won the Georgia Theatre Conference Play of the Year Award in 1996.  When The Devils Be Callin' won Onstage Atlanta's First Hometown Playwrighting Award in 2002.

 


What was the inspiration of your White Plains Plantation trilogy?

It was Halloween Night 2000 and my family went on a “Tour of Southern Ghosts” at Stone Mountain Park’s antebellum plantation. Since it was night and to enhance the mood, guides in costume lead the way from ghost story station to station by lantern or candlelight. One woman in a hooped skirt telling a ghost story kept backing up close to a lantern on the ground and I wondered, “what would happen if her dress caught on fire?”

On the way home a friend of my daughters wondered how people think up ghost stories. I then told the story of the ghost woman who on every full moon ran through the woods with her dress on fire. Everyone seemed to like it and I wrote a one-page summary the next day. I read this to summary to my family and they suggested that I turn it into a play. The play was originally about the sixteen year old “White Trash Girl” named Lottie, but in rewrite after rewrite the slave characters; Sophie and Aunt Ella took over the play. 

A reviewer came to the play and called the play ”tara-able”. One of his comments was that the “white characters were under developed”. After reading the review it was evident to me that his comments were racial and that he thought that I was black or African-American. This was because I could see from different eyes and my women black characters were human beings with feeling. Besides, they took over the story.  

One person wrote on an online bulletin board that the play was “racist and sexist”. To use one of my daughter’s terms, DUH! The play was set on a plantation in 1834. It was racist and sexist. If I had written the play any other way, it would have been a lie. 

Most people were amazed that I, a white guy, had written the play.

Is it hard to do a realistic slave period play with a politically correct audience?

Hell Yes!  I let a friend of mine who likes being called black, read Devils. He is a minister of a church. His comment was I should take out some of the ‘niggers.’ ---I did, and now, the play contains only forty-two nigger references. Lottie says about forty of them. The actress was a little apprehensive about doing it. Someone commented “that you could tell she really meant it.” I told them it was good acting. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the actor or playwright from a play.  

At one of the original readings of a scene of this very same play, at my playwrights group, a young white actress refused to read Lottie’s part.

During auditions many black and white actors were uncomfortable with the language, but they plugged right along. 

During the play it was interesting that whites didn’t laugh at some lines until blacks had laughed. And blacks found humor in parts that the whites didn’t understand.

 

The cast of When the Devils Be Callin' when it played Onstage Atlanta in 2002.  The tall guy in the back is playwright Stephen Peace.

Most of my new plays are about slavery or the slave life. I try and be true to the characters and this often means using “politically incorrect” language or the dreaded “N” word.. ---History is history and this part of it needs to be told and turned into plays. If being politically incorrect means a play never gets done, then I don’t care. I have the attitude that I have written the play and I definitely want each and every play produced, but the writing is the main thing. 

(I am writing this second part of the question of being politically correct after attending my playwrighting group this very same night.) 

In my group we read the first scene of my new play about a post slavery plantation and I was censored for using the term nigger. I was told by a black person present, that slaves didn’t refer to themselves as nigger. That was a derogatory term that masters used.  

I was told by someone else that considering that a black person was present that it was a politically and sensitive word. I walked out of the group. I did not like defending my play and thought that they should have been sensitive that this was scene one of a two-act play and the very first draft. Be careful to whom you show your work or they will marginalize it. That is one thing about group discussions or scene by scene readings. It is difficult to see the totality of the work.

How did you get interested in theatre and playwrighting? 

I wrote a little in college and had a supportive creative writing teacher. Then, I didn’t write anything more for ten years. At that time I began to write a crazy newsletter fro my work group. I invented workers and gave them promotions. Almost anything went, until I grew tired of it and someone didn’t realize that an employee that I killed off and gave an obituary, didn’t really exist. Anyway, I found out I had a flare for dialogue and sought out a playwrighting teacher.

What advice would you give someone wanting to become a playwright? 

Major in everything but playwrighting. Live and learn, Live and learn, Live and learn, and then write plays. Oh, and get a good teacher!

Name the southern playwrights who influenced you?  Which of their traits stand out?

Tennessee William, Tennessee Williams, Tennessee Williams. He was so honest, or as honest as he could be about human experience. He was gay, but had to write about the gay experience in a way that was acceptable in the 1950’s. I also noticed that in a couple of his plays he used words like “mendacity”. This is not an everyday word, but it is an interesting word. Then he repeats it several more times. I can’t remember the other play I noticed that in, but I did notice it in more than one play. 

I can’t read “A Street Car named Desire” or see it performed without going “wow”. “The Glass Menagerie has always bothered me. And being bothered by a play is a good thing.

What is the state of southern regional theatre?

As one of my former slave characters says in my new play… 

JULIUS: Bees carefulls or de craps outs on ya. 

Crappy. The odds of getting a southern play done in a southern theatre are probably greater than getting struck by lightening. It’s the old adage multiplied by a factor of ten “any club that would have me for a member has got to have something wrong with it.” Or, if it is from New York or far, far away, it has to be good, but if it from the South, or about the South it stinks.

What are you working on now?

Another play about post slavery. This is the play my playwrighting group attacked. I guess I’m just not in a politically correct mood right now. 

Then there are my dead plays. I just finished a one-act about a dead lesbian and some dead Confederate soldiers called Saints, Aints ‘n Haints

You see, I tend to get in playwrighting ruts. I love the ruts and write several plays about the same people/characters or themes. I do this when I think I haven’t discovered all I want to about a character or story. Anyway, I have several plays about dead people and graveyards.

Are any of your plays on stage now?

It depends on what stage you mean. I have had several requests from college students over the last year to direct my short play called “The Mirror”.  As far as any major productions, I don’t have anything in the works. But then, there is always tomorrow.


Stephen Peace web site, including excerpts of his plays. 


The Southern Plays of Stephen Peace

WALKIN' TA HEAVEN: Don and Angel confront their pasts and their prejudices.

BIRDS OF PREY:  This is the story of Cal, a Vietnam Veteran with mental problems who has ended out on the street as a homeless person.  His last chance is a boarding house run by a distant relative.

SHADOWS: A mass murder faces the electric chair and his accusers.

WHEN THE DEVILS BE CALLIN' is a good old Southern yarn about "devuls" and "white trash".

SOPHIE is set two months after "Devils" on White Plains Plantation.

HAINTS!: The sequel to When the Devils be Callin'.  It is set in 1860.

A GOOD HOT DAMNED!: Three southern women in a cemetery.

 

© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved