Henley sparks MSA students’ enthusiasm

Published 7:51 pm Friday, November 19, 2010

Long before Phyllis Spearman saw the play or the movie, she sawthe real thing.

She was one of Brookhaven’s original Miss Firecrackers, a highschool girls’ social club. And when Pulitzer-winning playwright andJackson native Beth Henley wrote “The Miss Firecracker Contest”about her experiences in the Homeseekers Paradise, she didn’t knowquite what to think.

“People probably think we’re bizarre. When I saw it, I said, ‘Ithink that’s a misrepresentation of us.’ My children fell outlaughing and said, ‘Mama, we’re just like that,'” Spearmansaid.

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As it turns out, Henley’s memories of yesterday’s Brookhaven -her mother descends from the Becker family – have carried over intomany of her award-winning works. But Henley’s Brookhaven was a citylong before the Mississippi School of the Arts, an institution sheproudly praised while speaking there to students and the publicduring a lecture and question session Thursday night.

“To have an arts school in Brookhaven would have been a dreamfor me,” Henley said. “I always knew there was a special somethinghere, but just no way to express it. Instead of trying to makeeveryone do the same thing in the same way, all of you arecherished as individual artists.”

Henley talked about the influences of Southern charm and societyand discussed her life’s work at length, fielding questions abouther inspiration, her characters and her future plans. She’s beenheavily involved this week in working with MSA students as part ofthe school’s Artist in Residence program, which seeks to bring thecountry’s arts leaders to the school for three-day guestlecturing.

Henley said she grew up with great storytellers.

“I loved listening to people talk and how they didn’t talk, howthey would fish for something without saying it,” she said. “Iwrote plays because I wasn’t that good in English. I thought Icould at least write plays where people are as smart as I am. Whenthey’re talking, if they mess up that’s OK because that’s the waythey talk.”

In Mississippi, there’s plenty to talk about and plenty to writeabout, Henley said.

“I think Mississippi is full of complexity, and in a complexworld is where writers can grow,” she said. “They have to learnabout things, wonder about a lot of things.”

That complexity is reflected in Delmount, the male character in”The Miss Firecracker Contest” with a history of rash actions andmental trouble.

“I related to his insanity, his completely not getting into theculture he was raised in,” Henley said. “His rage. His desire tobelong. It’s not that he wasn’t trying to fit in, he was justincapable of fitting in.”

Henley also explained why her plays make light of serioussituations without apologizing or reconciling the two moods.

“It’s very Southern – don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t takethings too seriously. Take it on the chin,” she said. “I don’t seethe world as totally wonderfully funny or totally sad. I see it asboth, one right on top of the other.”

Henley’s next play will apparently feature more serioussituations than humor. She told the crowd in Lampton Auditoriumshe’s putting the finishing touches on her newest work, “TheJacksonian,” set in Jackson in 1964. She said is was “the mostviolent and most despairing” play she’s ever written.

For the next generation of playwrights and actors being trainedat MSA, “The Jacksonian’s” subject matter won’t matter.

Students like Philadelphia’s Bethany Kinney, 17, will want tostudy and master those characters. She was thrilled to play theleading role of Carnelle Thursday night when a trio of artsstudents acted out a scene from “The Miss Firecracker Contest.”

She was even more thrilled to work with the master in class.

“A lot of the fears I had about my own playwriting weredispelled by her infinite wisdom,” Kinney said. “I hope I can useher knowledge to better myself.”

As part of her teaching this week, Henley worked with Kinney onher own play, “Four,” a story about a girl with multiplepersonality disorders designed to allow the audience to see thosepersonalities compete onstage. The school’s theatre students willperform “Four” at the upcoming Mississippi Theatre AssociationFestival.

“It had just gotten a little stale,” Kinney said. “She helped mesee fresh ideas I would have seen, to develop and clarify somemoments I would have thrown away. She made me a lot more aware ofmy own work.”