Tennessee Williams Festival

Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival promises spectacular walking tour, theatre on 25 anniversary

Free Tennessee Williams Festival incorporates history, music, live drama Oct. 13-14

CLARKSDALE - Borrowing its title from Led Zeppelin superstars, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the 25th anniversary of Clarksdale’s Tennessee Williams Festival promises an exciting agenda of history, music, and live drama from the playwright’s great Delta plays.

“Walking into Clarksdale” will be a most unusual experience,” says Marilyn Starks, project director for the event sponsored by Coahoma Community College Oct. 13-14 with support from the Mississippi Arts Commission, State Tourism, and the Mississippi Humanities Council.

 “Free and open to the public, it is an Bicentennial event incorporating Clarksdale’s rich history during the civil rights era, its importance as a center for ragtime, jazz and blues music, and, of course, Tennessee Williams drama,” continued Starks.

Scenes featuring Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire will be performed in The Grange Cemetery by Alice Walker; Johnny McPhail will portray ‘Mr. Charlie Colton,’ the legendary traveling shoe salesman from The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, in the historic lobby of the former Hotel Clarksdale, now home of Fredean and Charles Langford.

Scenes from the playwright’s early work, Spring Storm, will be performed inside Carnegie Public Library, its original setting, and the former rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church will host Alma Winemiller’s memorable literary society meeting from Summer and Smoke.

 A Grande Reception Friday night at the Cutrer Mansion will showcase an innovative performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Dr. Matt Foss and his actors from the American Players Theatre.

With minimum props and major audience input, Foss and his group earned standing ovations in 2015 and 2016 for their productions of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Applause followed them to The Kennedy Center and the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.

Reservations ($25 each) via Coahoma County Tourism (662-627-6149) are required for the Friday night drama with its Cutrer Mansion Grande Reception. Guests are encouraged to attend attired as their favorite Tennessee Williams character.

Students competing in Saturday’s Student Drama competition at Coahoma Community College are invited (with reservations) to experience the drama following an earlier pizza supper.

In addition to CCC’s elite drama competition in the Georgia Lewis Theatre for high school students with cash prizes awarded to school drama departments and trophies to students, Saturday’s activities include an open house hosted by the Clarksdale Woman’s Club, and porch plays in the historic district.

The festival’s finale will be the screening of a major Tennessee Williams movie outside the Delta Blues Museum.

Continuing education credits will be available to teachers registered for the festival.

2017 Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival “Walking Into Clarksdale” Tour

9 a.m. – Friday, October 13, 2017

Opening in Haven United Methodist Church with Tennessee Williams Festival Speaker Tom “Coop” Cooper presiding and introducing Mayor Chuck Espy presenting Welcome from the City of Clarksdale;  Dr. Valmadge Towner, president of CCC, presented by Marilyn Starks, festival project director,  welcoming all from CCC;  Music by the CCC Concert Choir directed by Kelvin Towers; Church historian Vicki Espy will relate the church’s history as a safe meeting site during the Civil Rights Era/neighborhood Dr. Aaron E. Henry’s Fourth Street Drug Store/site of voter registration drives by the Rev. Jessie Jackson and future site of the new North Mississippi Civil Rights Museum; scholar panel: Dr. Ralph Voss, Dr. Ann Fisher-Wirth, filmmaker/ Williams biographer Karen Kohlhaas and Dr. Matt Voss will discuss the playwright’s great Delta plays; * Site of two historic markers: Archives and History and Mississippi Freedom Trail.

 11 a.m. – Messenger’s – One of the first businesses in the New World District  - Dwayne Messenger, owner, and Henry Dorsey, retired CCC fine arts chairman, who grew up in the neighborhood, will describe its rich and diverse culture in blues, jazz, and ragtime music. *Site of a Blues Trail Marker honoring The New World.

 11:30 a.m. – First Baptist Church – Dr. Claudett Williams, church historian, will present the church’s history including lectures given here by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. *Site of historic marker from Archives and History.

 Noon – The Grange Cemetery where many of Clarksdale founders are buried including Blanche Clark Cutrer and John W. Cutrer. Acclaimed actress Alice Walker will perform the death monologues of Blanche DuBois, heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire. City Commissioner Ken Murphey will talk about his family’s angel monument that Tennessee Williams “borrowed” and converted into the signature set piece in the Clarksdale play, summer and Smoke.

 Break for Lunch on Your Own

2 p.m. – Walking tour continues inside the former lobby of the historic Hotel Clarksdale, 117 East Second Street, current home of Fredean and Charles Langford, who are hosting the performance of the legendary Tennessee Williams one-act play: The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, starring award-winning Oxford actor Johnny McPhail. Presenting an overview of the drama and her husband’s role as a traveling shoe salesman will be Susan McPhail whose recent performance in the movie, A Walk in the Woods with Nick Nolte and Robert Redford drew rave reviews.

  3 p.m. – The walking tour continues to Carnegie Public Library, 114 Delta Avenue, where Dr.  Ann Fisher-Wirth, Tennessee Williams scholar, will present an overview of the play Spring Storm that opened there.  Scenes from the play will be performed there.  * Site of historic marker from Archives and History.

 4 p.m. – The walking tour continues to the former rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church,  106 Sharkey Ave., where the playwright lived as a child with his mother, sister, and grandparents: the Rev. Walter Dakin and Rose Dakin. The playwright later transformed the rectory living room into a memorable “literary society” meeting in the play, Summer and Smoke that will be performed.*Site of a Literary Landmark Plaque from the Libraries of America.

 7 p.m. – Grande Reception at the Cutrer Mansion, 109 Clark St.,  with music by guitarist David Dunavant, gourmet cuisine by The Dutch Oven, and a centerpiece theatrical production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams performed Dr. Matt Foss and his American Player Theatre actors. Guests are encouraged to come as their favorite Tennessee Williams character. *Site of historic marker from Archives and History.

 SATURDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2017

Georgia Lewis Theatre, Coahoma Community College Campus, 3240 Friars Point Road

8 a.m. – Continental Breakfast for students and teachers

9 a.m. – Welcome: Kappi Allen, competition director and Visit Clarksdale director followed immediately by monologue competition

10 a.m. – Scene competition begins

11 a.m.  – Stella Calling Competition

11:15 a.m. – Acting workshop directed by Karen Kohlhaas followed by announcement of winners.

12 Noon – Luncheon in the Gallery prepared by Chef Brennon Warr and CCC culinary students

                    Hosted by Coahoma County Tourism.

 Festival moves to Clarksdale’s Historic District

 2:30 – 4 p.m. - Open House hosted by the Clarksdale Woman’s Club

3:30 – 5 p.m. Porch Plays featuring scenes from Tennessee Williams plays performed in the neighborhood where Tennessee Williams spent his childhood: 415 Court Street, 203 Court Street, 41 John Street, and 235 Clark Street. Question and answer sessions follow each performance,

  Finale: Outside screening of a Tennessee Williams movie on the Delta Blues Museum’s oversize screen on the Melville Tillis Delta Blues Stage adjacent to the DBM.

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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.