Tennessee Williams Festival focuses on ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’

Free 22nd annual celebration sponsored by Coahoma Community College set Oct. 3-4

CLARKSDALE – The 22nd annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival sponsored by Coahoma Community College and scheduled Oct. 3-4, 2014, in Clarksdale, the playwright’s childhood home and setting for his great Delta plays, is focusing on another destination this fall.

“We are taking a look at “Sweet Bird of Youth,” which takes place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” says Kenneth Holditch, of New Orleans, one of America’s premiere Tennessee Williams scholars.

With Paul Newman and Geraldine Page starring in leading roles, the movie takes place in Biloxi probably in the Buena Vista Hotel, which no longer exists but once was located near the present Beau Rivage/Casino Hotel, says Dr. Holditch.

Page plays a mature actress, Princess Alexandra Del Lago following a disastrous screen performance who is traveling incognito with Newman, a much younger aspiring actor and Biloxi native.

Opening Friday morning, Oct. 3, in Clarksdale’s Cutrer Mansion with a screening of the “Sweet Bird” movie, the festival also will include an update of the Karen Kohlhaas documentary on Tennessee Williams in the Delta containing interviews with many local residents.

Following a welcome Friday afternoon from Coahoma Community College President Valmadge Towner in Whiteside Lecture Hall on the CCC campus, Dr. Holditch is expected to evoke strong audience interaction and comment following his signature “Sweet Bird” keynote address.

Also certain to ignite interest in the play’s characters will be dramatic readings by veteran actress/director Erma Duricko of New York as Princess Del Lago and Jonathan Miller of Theatre Oxford as Chance Wayne performing the Paul Newman role.

Their portrayals will be critiqued by a panel of outstanding academic scholars: Dr. Colby Kullman, Dr. Ralph Voss, Dr. Ann Fisher-Wirth, and film critic Coop Cooper.

Other talented theatre professionals taking center stage later in live drama are Broadway celebrity Jeremy Lawrence; Johnny McPhail, a recent co-star with Matthew McConaughey in the popular HBO movie, “True Detective” who portrays Boss Finely in “Sweet Bird”; Oxford’s Elise Fyke as his daughter, Heavenly Finely; Susan McPhail describing her memorable audition with Nick Nolte and Robert Redford for a role in their upcoming production; Alice Walker as Maggie from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof;” and Sherrye Williams as Amanda Wingfield from “The Glass Menagerie.”

At Saturday morning’s elite student drama competition, the public is invited to experience more live theatre as student actors compete in roles as fledgling Big Daddys, Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat…and maybe Boss Finley.

This vibrant, timed and structured contest takes place in the Georgia Lewis Theatre with students, drama teachers, and visitors filling every seat, cheering, whooping and hollering after extraordinary performances.

With energy and concentration similar to athletic playoffs, the stake is $3,000 for school drama departments and personal trophies for student/actors.

Afterward all walk to CCC’s Gallery for a celebration luncheon prepared by Chef Brennon Warr and his student culinary staff. Last year, despite estimates and head counts, the crowd grew in exuberance and size, and Chef Warr quickly dispatched his staff to open every cupboard and cook everything in sight.

Following the celebratory feast, all flock downtown to St. George’s Episcopal Church, an important anchor in the life of America’s great playwright and across the street to Clarksdale Women’s Club for additional hospitality.

Porch plays begin at 3 p.m. with chairs on lawns in the historic district, and live theatre in action on the porches of at least four turn-of-the-century houses.

When the dialogues are over, conversations begin with actors and the audience discussing what they’ve witnessed, and theatre becoming very live.

A special “Meet and Greet” reception takes place Friday night at the Clark House with gourmet cuisine starring shrimp, grilled pork tenderloin, vegetables, assorted cheese, spicy layered dips, and miniature chocolate and lemon tarts prepared by the Dutch Oven.

Guests fill the historic foyer and front porch to enjoy blues guitar music plus Coahoma’s acclaimed gospel and do-wop ensembles choreographed and directed by Kelvin Towers.

In addition to CCC, the festival is supported by grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Humanities Council, and partnerships with the Chamber of Commerce, Coahoma Tourism Commission, the Coahoma Higher Education Center, Carnegie Public Library, Delta Blues Museum, Sunflower River Blues Association, local businesses and individual donors.

All events are free and open to the public with advance reservations required for meals: the Friday night reception ($25) and Saturday’s luncheon ($10).

Marilyn Starks, CCC director of institutional advancement, is serving as Mississippi Humanities Council project director of the festival; CCC faculty and staff including academic instructors, administrative, business office, website, artistic, technology, transportation, and other specialists are key participants in staging the event.

For more information, call the Chamber of Commerce at 662-627-7337 or 624-5648 or view the festival’s website: www.coahomacc.edu/twilliams.