Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival

26th Annual MS Delta Tennessee Williams Festival to Focus on 1957 Play Orpheus Descending

Kicks off with Elvis Celebration at Cutrer Mansion on Thursday night Grand Opening of Rectory Museum on Friday night

September 26, 2018 – Clarksdale, Mississippi – Coahoma Community College (CCC) announces that the 26th Annual MS Delta Tennessee Williams Festival (MDTWF) will focus on Williams’ 1957 play, ORPHEUS DESCENDING, which is set in a mercantile store in the Clarksdale area and references nearby Moon Lake, the Mississippi River and other local landmarks. The festival will be held October 11 – 13, 2018, at various locations in Clarksdale including the Cutrer Mansion, the Georgia Lewis Theatre at Coahoma Community College and several historic venues in downtown Clarksdale.

Williams both lived in and regularly visited Clarksdale between the ages of 6 and 21, and set some of his most famous plays in the area.

This year’s festival will also include the grand opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum, a new museum dedicated to the playwright’s time in the Mississippi Delta. The museum is housed in the former rectory of St. George's Episcopal Church, of which Williams' grandfather, the Reverend Walter E. Dakin, was rector from 1917-1932.

The festival officially begins on Thursday, October 11, at 6 pm with a kickoff dinner and dance party at the Cutrer Mansion with food by the Dutch Oven and a performance by the CCC Ensemble Choir. The event will feature a celebration of Elvis Presley because Williams wanted Elvis to play the protagonist Valentine Xavier in the movie version of ORPEUS DESCENDING (the 1960 film entitled THE FUGITIVE KIND).

Local residents who remember Elvis performing at the Clarksdale Civic Auditorium in 1955 will have an opportunity to reminisce, following opening remarks by renowned Williams scholar, Dr. Kenneth Holditch, who attended elementary school with Elvis in Tupelo, Mississippi, and who will also give the festival’s keynote speech the following morning. The Elvis discussion will be followed by an excerpt from the play ORPHEUS DESCENDING directed by Dr. Matt Foss, and featuring visiting actors Matthew Brumlow, Heidi-Marie Ferren, and Elizabeth Thompson.

On Friday, October 12, the literary conference begins at 9:30 AM in the famed New World District at the New Roxy Theatre. Renowned scholars Dr. Kenneth Holditch, Professor Emeritus of the University of New Orleans; Dr. Jack Barbera, Professor Emeritus at the University of Mississippi; Dr. Virginia Craighill, English Professor at the University of the South; Dr. Matt Foss, Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Toledo, Dr. Françoise Hamlin, Associate Professor of Africana Studies & History at Brown University; and Dr. Clark White, Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will lecture and introduce scenes and performances at various locations along the historic tour including Red's Juke Joint, the Grange cemetery, the Riverside Hotel and the Collective Seed and Supply Company. That afternoon, scholars will participate in a panel, "Clarksdale, Cotton, and the Cutrers", including a slideshow and talk on the Cutrer family by Williams documentarian Karen Kohlhaas, at the Cutrer Mansion.

Friday evening will conclude with the grand opening of the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum at 5 pm. The museum will feature Williams' family, the history of St. George's Episcopal Church, and the St. George's parishioners after whom Williams named some of the most famous characters in American drama, including the Cutrer and Wingfield families.

On Saturday morning, the MDTWF continues its exciting Student Drama Competition on the campus of Coahoma Community College where students from around the state will compete for prizes ranging from $100 to $500 benefiting their high schools. There will also be a talk at St. George’s Church by the Rev. Jason Shelby at 2 pm on Saturday; museum open free to the public 1-3pm; and an open house at the Clarksdale Woman’s Club across the street 1-3pm, followed by Porch Plays—scenes and poems by Tennessee Williams performed on four porches in Clarksdale’s historic district that afternoon. The Porch Plays start at 3 pm at 415 Court Street —a house that Tennessee Williams played in as a boy with his friend Phil Clark, who grew up there.

After co-founding and successfully directing the festival for 25 years on behalf of Coahoma Community College, Clarksdale journalist, photographer and author Panny Mayfield continues to serve as Director Emeritus for the festival while New York theater director, teacher, and filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas and Coahoma County Higher Education Center director Jen Waller are serving as co-directors this year.

The entire festival is free and open to the public with the exception of the dinner on Thursday night at the Cutrer Mansion which is $25. Tickets are available by emailing cchecassistant@gmail.com or by calling the CCHEC/Cutrer Mansion at 662-621-9344 or 662-645-3555. Reservations for the dinner are requested.

The festival is sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Arts Commission, Visit Mississippi, Visit Clarksdale and Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc.

For a complete roster of events, please visit www.DeltaWilliamsFestival.com

Tennessee Williams Fest pronounced ‘best ever!’

October 2017

CLARKSDALE – “This was the best Tennessee Williams Festival ever,” says veteran drama judge Ann Fisher-Wirth of Oxford.

Echoed by dozens participating in the “Walking into Clarksdale” tour featuring civil rights era history in vintage churches to scenes from the playwright’s Delta plays performed in their original settings, rave reviews also included the fledgling high school actors in vibrant drama competition at Coahoma Community College.

Winning first place in the scene competition and a $700 cash prize for its school drama competition was Jackson Prep with its performance from “The Glass Menagerie.” Second place winner ($400) was Power APAC for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Other winners included: Monologue competition: Power APAC, $500, Mokallen Kelly, first place; Power APAC, Alora Griffth, second place, $200; Northwest Rankin High School, third place, Chris Russell, $100; Honorable Mention: Power APAC, Ella Rockoff.

Other winners: Best Costume, Power APAC, Ella Rockoff, $100; Judges Direction Award: Jackson Prep, Mary Frances Dickey, $100; the Colby Kullman Teacher Appreciation Award, Power APAC, Malika Quarterman, $200.

The  Stella Calling competition winners were Aidan Creel, male,  Jackson Prep, $100; and Shondrick Willingham,  female, Coahoma Early College High School, $100.

Kappi Allen, director of Visit Clarksdale, Coahoma Tourism, directed the competition and also hosted a luncheon for students and teachers prepared by CCC Chef Brennon Warr and his culinary students.

Other Saturday events included an open house hosted by the Clarksdale’s Woman’s Club, four porch plays in the Tennessee Williams historic district; and a movie screening of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” outside the Delta Blues Museum.

Sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the festival was supported by grants and contributions via a Mississippi Bicentennial Grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council and Visit Mississippi,  the Mississippi Arts Commission, Visit Clarksdale, the Chamber of Commerce, First National Bank of Clarksdale, and patrons: Mary Thompson, Jane and Jim Wilbourn.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Coahoma Community College’s concert choir under the direction of Kelvin Towers opens the festival in historic Haven United Methodist Church.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Standing before the vintage pipe organ at First Baptist Church, historian Dr. Claudett Williams leads a tour of her church, its artifacts and history from Clarksdale's civil rights era including the pulpit used by Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Portraying Blanche DuBois, actress Alice Walker performs monologues from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in The Grange Cemetery near the burial site of Blanche Clark Cutrer.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Enjoying a lavish buffet at the Cutrer Mansion are photographer and frequent Clarksdale visitor  David Klein (left) of Los Angeles; Stara Moore of Houston, and Morgan Bearden,  consultant with the St. Louis Tennessee Williams Festival. Bearden's daughter successfully competed in Clarksdale's student drama competition more than a decade ago and he frequently returns to the Clarksdale celebration.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Theatre director Dr. Matt Foss (standing) welcomes the audience to his company's performance of scenes from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in the Cutrer Mansion. Included among the guests were high school students from Jackson's Power APAC performing arts school who competed the next day in the student drama competition at Coahoma Community College. 

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Jackson Prep takes first place in the scene competition and $700 for its school drama department for its performance of “The Glass Menagerie.”

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Beneath paper lanterns reminiscent of the lavish Delta parties hosted by Blanche and J. W. Cutrer, guests at Friday's Tennessee Williams Festival Grande Reception enjoy live drama from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Dave Dunavant's guitar music, and a gourmet buffet from the Dutch Oven. 

Bill Luckett

Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett welcomes more than 120 fledgling actors to Saturday's elite Student Drama Competition in the Georgia Lewis Theatre of Coahoma Community College.

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In a Master Scholar  panel Dr. Ralph Voss (left) and Dr. Kenneth Holditch critique the playwright's two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF in CCC's Whiteside Lecture Hall.

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The heroines in plays by Tennessee Williams are interesting subjects studied by (from left) filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas, actress Susan McPhail, and scholar/poet Ann Fisher-Wirth

STREETCAR to star at 24th Tennessee Williams Fest

Annual celebration, a Pulitzer Centennial event, scheduled Sept. 30-Oct. 1

Shelly Ritter and Randall Andrews

Clarksdale residents Shelley Ritter and Randall Andrews arrive at the Cutrer Mansion’s Grande Reception in 2015 attired as Tennessee Williams leading characters from CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF:  Maggie and Brick Pollit. Guests are encouraged again to come as their favorite Tennessee Williams character.

CLARKSDALE- Although A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic Tennessee Williams drama, is set in New Orleans, its ties to Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta are unmistakable, agree scholars booked for the 24th Williams Festival here Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

Sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the festival is a Pulitzer Centennial event and will feature scenes from Streetcar as its centerpiece, according to Marilyn Starks, project director.

Staging the drama inside the Cutrer Mansion – a setting regarded by many as Streetcar’s Belle Reve, the lost ancestral home of Blanche DuBois - will be the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

The group earned standing ovations here in 2015 for its innovative performance of The Glass Menagerie and applause ALSO followed them later in the Kennedy Center and the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.

Beneath paper lanterns reminiscent of the lavish Delta parties and masked balls hosted by J. W. and Blanche Clark Cutrer, guests are encouraged to come as their favorite Tennessee Williams characters. 

Blues guitarist Dave Dunavant will provide music before the drama.

As a Pulitzer presentation, the Friday night drama will be introduced by Dr. Kenneth Holditch, who delivered the keynote address at the Tennessee Williams portrait unveiling in Mississippi’s Hall of Fame ceremony in April, and Dr. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, Pulitzer Centennial sponsor in Mississippi. The production is being funded in part by MHC and also the Mississippi Arts Commission.

Opening earlier Friday morning in Coahoma Community College’s Whiteside Lecture Hall with a welcome by Dr. Valmadge Towner, CCC president and music by the college’s Concert Choir, the literary conference offers a taste of Streetcar from the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

Afterward Starks guarantees three panels of Tennessee Williams specialists will evoke excitement, dialogue, questions and even arguments from the audience.

Tennessee’s heroines will be dissected by a trio including Ann Fisher-Wirth, English professor/poet; Karen Kohlhaas, filmmaker/theatre professional; and Susan McPhail, actor/director. 

A Master Scholar critique of Tennessee’s two Pulitzer Prize winners: Streetcar and Cat will feature scholars Kenneth Holditch, Colby Kullman, and Ralph Voss.

A final panel pinpointing Mississippi Delta’s influences on Tennessee will include Coop Cooper, journalist/filmmaker/critic; Kenneth Holditch and Colby Kullman, scholars; and Karen Kohlhaas, filmmaker/theatre professional.

The festival offers registered educators continuing education credits (CEDs).

Saturday’s agenda opens and stars the highly competitive and elite student drama contest in the Georgia Lewis Theatre. It is open to the public.  Afterward students and drama coaches will be treated to a hot luncheon prepared by CCC Chef Brennon Warr and his culinary students. Visitors with reservations ($10) are invited to join the celebration.

The festival moves downtown to Clarksdale’s historic district for a welcome to St. George’s Episcopal Church by the Rev. Jason Shelby. It will be followed by tours of the former rectory being renovated in a recreation of the period when Dakin and Williams families lived there.  It also will include festival memorabilia from 24 years.

Across the street, the Clarksdale Woman’s Club – one of the city’s oldest community organizations – will host an open house offering refreshments and a place to relax between porch plays in the adjoining historic district.  

From 3 – 5 p.m. audiences will be seated in lawn chairs before turn-of-the-century homes to enjoy four porch play performances of Tennessee Williams plays. Informal interactions between actors and fans are expected to follow each drama. 

On stage will be theatre veterans/festival favorites:  Alice Walker, Susan and Johnny McPhail from Oxford; Sherrye Williams and Jim Schnalebach from Clarksdale; the Matt Foss Theatre group; and a top student cast representing the festival’s drama competition.

The festival is free and open to all with the exception of food events that require advance reservations. Friday night’s Grande Reception/Buffet ($25) is catered by The Dutch Oven, andSaturday’s luncheon ($10) at CCC. For reservations, contact Coahoma Tourism, P.O. 1770, Clarksdale, MS 38614 or telephone: 662-627-6149.

Inaugurated in 1993 by CCC President Vivian Presley through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the festival has been honored with MHC’s Partner Award and documented by the BBC and European Public Television.

The festival is supported by grants from CCC, MHC, MAC, Visit Mississippi, Visit Clarksdale, local businesses, organizations and individual patrons.

Other partners include the Chamber of Commerce, Coahoma County Higher Education Center, Delta Blues Museum, St. George’s Episcopal Church, the Sunflower River Blues Association, Carnegie Public Library, and the City of Clarksdale.

Porch Play

Clarksdale’s historic district and the Dr. Barr/Gov. Brewer Mansion is the porch play setting for THE GLASS MENAGERIE in 2015 performed by the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

Cutrer Mansion

Beneath paper lanterns Grande Reception guests in the Cutrer Mansion surround the Matt Foss Theatre actors performing scenes from THE GLASS MENAGERIE in 2015.