Theater » Theater Feature


New plays in Memphis owe gratitude to artist/educator Gloria Baxter.



Tennessee Williams may have found his calling after poring over the works of Anton Chekhov at the Rhodes College library, but Memphis, Tennessee, the home of the blues and birthplace of rock-and-roll, has never been known as a breeding ground for interesting new playwrights. In recent months, however, the city has witnessed something of a renaissance within its performing-arts community, including a significant increase in both the diversity and the quality of new works by local dramatists.

Last weekend Shakespeare's Women, a compiled script by Leslie "Stickey" Reddick, opened at the Hattiloo Theatre, while Hold Fast, a semi-narrative solo performance by Phil Darius Wallace, closed at TheatreWorks. Meanwhile, Gloria Baxter, a retired University of Memphis professor widely recognized for her innovative approach to narrative theater, prepared her latest work — Wild Legacy — for an open-to-the-public rehearsal.

"I don't think I want a lot of people [at the workshop]," Baxter said in a recent interview with the Flyer. She may not have fully communicated that to Voices of the South's artistic director Jerre Dye, who extended a hearty invitation to the entire audience at TheatreWorks prior to the closing performance of Hold Fast, where Baxter's own wild legacy was fully on display. Hold Fast was directed by Dye, who studied with Baxter at the U of M and whose own play Cicada was recently nominated for a Southern Writer's Federation Award.

"It's really fabulous," Baxter said, complimenting Wallace's highly physical performance in Hold Fast, a funny, intimate, and moving autobiography of the 40-something actor who has known good times and bad and who has pieced together a living by performing solo shows about historical figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglass.

While Baxter had nothing directly to do with Shakespeare's Women, it seems to have her fingerprints all over it. The show was conceived by Hattiloo founder Ekundayo Bandele and director Reddick and assembled by Reddick and Arlinda Thomas, but it's the kind of "compiled script" — an original work assembled from existing traditional and nontraditional texts — that Baxter has taught her students how to develop for decades.

Before a recent Saturday night performance of her play, Reddick confesses some frustration with unexpected cast changes. It is still a pleasant enough evening in the theater with some of Elizabethan drama's most famous ladies. If Shakespeare's Women is less successful than Hold Fast, it's only because Reddick's script, a crazy quilt of Shakespearean femininity, lacks an engaging central character and needs a more clearly defined point of view. In her curtain speech before the show began, Reddick said she hoped to explore concepts ranging from sisterhood to cross-dressing, but without more context it was often difficult to discern the play's purpose.

What is truly exciting about Reddick's approach to the material is her ability to dazzle us with the musicality of Shakespeare's language at one moment and then confront us with the currentness of his ideas in the next. She shows us an up-to-date Shakespeare at his most conversational. The show plays like some live-theater equivalent of a "director's reel," teasing the audience with compelling scenes from Macbeth and Merchant of Venice.

Baxter has a simple explanation for why she's devoted so much of her life to nontraditional script development. While she's attracted to the art of live performance, she's simply not interested in a lot of theatrical literature. Wild Legacy, the piece she is currently developing for Voices of the South, was commissioned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It originally was slated to open in Memphis in March but was pushed back to November when the larger celebration, which includes a documentary film by screenwriter Kelly Hearn and a touring photography installation by Jeff Jones, was delayed.

Baxter was already familiar with much of her source material, the writings of Olaus and Mardy Murie, husband and wife naturalists who are closely associated with the creation of the Arctic Refuge. In 2002, Voices of the South created an original narrative theater piece in honor of Mardy Murie's 100th birthday. A year earlier, Baxter had also gone on an expedition tracing the Muries' 1956 adventures above the arctic circle and has become fascinated with the region.

The irony of a small Southern theater troupe creating new work about the Arctic isn't lost on Baxter. "It could be seen as a kind of hubris," she says.

Wild Legacy, which is inspired by Mardy Murie's book Two in the Far North, recognizes that most Americans will never experience the Arctic firsthand. That doesn't mean it can't impact the imagination, and Baxter uses the Muries' writing to help her actors and her audiences experience wolf encounters and migrating caribou herds.

Baxter says she never addresses current controversies over whether or not to extract oil from the Arctic Refuge. She says she'd rather create a sense of what the region is like and let people decide for themselves.

Wild Legacy will preview at the Evergreen Theatre on November 11th, prior to its official premiere in Fairbanks, Alaska, on the 50th Anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: December 6, 2010. It will then tour at least seven U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, Sacramento, Denver, Hadley, Massachusetts, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.

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