Since America’s great Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright spent his childhood in Clarksdale and later transformed many of its sites and citizens into legendary settings and characters still dominating center stages around the world, many local sites are infused with layers of history.
On front porch stages, Brick, Blanche, and Baby Doll still reflect Clarksdale’s influence on this literary genius and the reason for its selection by the U.S. Postal Service to host the Tennessee Williams postage stamp unveiling in 1995 and the BBC documentary being recorded here in 2008.
The festival is sponsored by Coahoma Community College, 3240 Friars Point Road, (an extension of Clarksdale’s Delta Avenue) that is located via a four-lane boulevard (3 miles) north of Clarksdale.
The Georgia Lewis Theatre on the CCC campus hosts the festival’s acclaimed Student Acting Competition on Saturday with students across the state of Mississippi competing for $2,500 in cash prizes for their school drama departments and engraved trophies for themselves. Prizes are awarded for winners in monologues and scenes from Tennessee Williams plays as well as the popular “Stella-Calling” contest. Coordinating the competition and acting workshops are veteran theatre professionals. Winners are honored at a Saturday evening finale dinner/dance where they recreate their performances, enjoy a barbecue supper, interact with theatre professionals and dance to live music by a Mississippi Delta blues band.
During registration, the festival distributes a Walking Tour (self-guided) map of Clarksdale’s historic district, which is the neighborhood where Tom Williams spent his childhood. Porch plays are presented in this area with the audience sitting in lawn chairs. Some of the significant sites include:
St. George’s Episcopal Church and Church Office – 106 Sharkey Avenue (former rectory where Tom Williams lived with his mother, Edwina Dakin Williams, his sister Rose, and his grandparents, Rose Dakin and the Rev. Walter Dakin, rector in Clarksdale for 16 years) while his father, Cornelius Williams, a traveling shoe salesman, was on the road. Featuring miniature flying buttress, the 100-year-old brick structure is an architectural gem with exposed interior beams, gleaming altar brass, and rich stained glass windows including two dedicated to Reverend and Mrs. Dakin and large signature windows: the Good Shepherd and St. George behind the altar. The church hosts an organ recital and open house in the former rectory at each festival. In 2008 Clarksdale dedicated a “Walk of Fame” bronze sidewalk plaque honoring Tennessee Williams outside the church office. The former rectory is also a National Literary Landmark.
The Cutrer Mansion – 109 Clark Street – The Italian Renaissance residence built in 1916 by Blanche Clark Cutrer (only daughter of Clarksdale founder John Clark) and her attorney husband John Wesley Cutrer, anchors Clarksdale’s historic district and hosts an open house during the festival. The showplace residence where the era’s cotton-wealthy “jet-setters” lived with Italian gardeners, French chefs and entertained lavishly with masked balls and house parties, was a site visited frequently by young Tom Williams with his grandfather on parish calls. It is considered to be Tennessee’s “Belle Reve” – the lost ancestral home of Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. Today the structure is the centerpiece of the Coahoma Higher Education Center, an artistic and educational conference center for classes and cultural events for Coahoma Community College and Delta State University. After heading the list of Mississippi’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Buildings, the Cutrer Mansion was renovated extensively.
The Clark House – Next door to the Cutrer Mansion, the magnificent mansion was built in 1859 by Clarksdale founder John Clark, and today has been renovated into a residence inn by California developer Charles Evans. It has hosted receptions and porch plays during the Williams Festival.
The Barr-Brewer Mansion – 41 John Street – A short walk from the Cutrer Mansion is the palatial residence of former Mississippi Governor Earl Brewer and home today of Tami and Dr. Mike Barr. Its fabled reception rooms have hosted numerous receptions during the festival, and its magnificent columns define a stage for porch plays.
Porch Play Settings – High drama unfolds on front porches with the audience sitting on lawn chairs.
41 John Street – The Barr/Brewer Mansion
235 Clark Street – The double-galleried home of Fran and Tom Ross, across the street from the Barr/Brewer Mansion, hosted the unveiling of the U.S. postage stamp honoring Tennessee Williams in 1995. Four generations of the Ross family have lived in the historic turn-of-the-century residence.
203 Court Street – The Victorian-style law office of attorney John Sherman on the corner of Court and Yazoo, faces the Coahoma County Courthouse and serves as a stage each year for student drama class theatrical presentations including performances by Clarksdale and Hernando High Schools.
415 Court Street – The “raised cottage-style” Clark/Williams/Mayfield home was built in 1894 and is the second oldest residence in Clarksdale. It also was the home of Tennessee’s best childhood friend, Phil Clark. Mrs. Pauline Clark served Coahoma County in the state Legislature. Renowned theatre director Elia Kazan and actress Barbara Bel Geddes visited in the home before her role on Broadway as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
The Tennessee Williams Park – Located at the foot of Court Street, the park was developed by Clarksdale’s Board of Mayor and Commissioners and features an angel statue reminiscent of the signature set piece from Summer and Smoke, a period play set in Clarksdale. The statue was a gift from the late Mary Jo McIntosh in memory of her husband, Bob McIntosh. The playwright’s brother, Dakin Williams, often gave poetry readings in the park. It also has been used for plays and the presentation of student acting trophies. The area was once a playground for Tom Williams and his friends, Eddie Peacock, Phil and Charles Clark.
501 First Street – The law office of Chapman, Lewis, and Swan facing First Street was the former Peacock residence – home of Tom’s friend Eddie Peacock and his sister, “Baby Doll” Peacock – a name he borrowed for 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and the movie, Baby Doll, starring Carroll Baker that was filmed in Benoit, Miss.
Clarksdale Station – The renovated historic passenger depot located at Issaquena and Blues Alley has hosted barbeque suppers and festival finales for the Student Acting Competition.
The renovated Art Deco Greyhound Bus Station – on Issaquena and Third Street serves as a Downtown Information Center and home of the Clarksdale Revitalization Board. The setting has also hosted events for the Williams Festival.
Uncle Henry’s Place on Moon Lake - is linked historically with Tennessee Williams who visited there as a child frequently with his grandfather. The playwright later transformed the setting into the Moon Lake Casino in numerous drams includingSummer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Battle of Angels, Orpheus Descending, A Streetcar Named Desire, This Property’s Condemned, and others.
Uncle Henry’s Place is 30 minutes north of Clarksdale. For the most direct route from Memphis, exit U.S. 62 at the U.S. 49 turn to Helena, Ark; exit U.S. 49 at the Moon Lake sign, cross a bridge leading to Moon Lake and Uncle Henry’s is on the left behind a circular drive.