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Coahoma College in Clarksdale, MS Wins Acclaim for Tennessee Williams Festival

Posted on October 19, 2010 at 01:04 PM

Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, Mississippi has earned international recognition for the annual Tennessee Williams Festival, which celebrates the world-famous achievements of Tennessee Williams, who grew up in Clarksdale. The 18th annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival recently took place on Ocgt. 15-16, 2010, and gave a superb kickoff to the 2011 Williams Centennial Year with the presentation of director Jodie Markell screening her movie of the Williams screenplay, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.

The Delta Caucus would like to commend Coahoma’s acclaimed festival as a great example of the Delta’s renowned literary and cultural heritage, for our region was the home of many of the greatest literary and musical figures in the world over the past century. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale and other activities in the region highlight the Delta’s great musical heritage, and the Tennessee Williams Festival is a prominent example of what can be accomplished based on the region’s great literary tradition as well. These activities not only bring in tourist dollars to the region, but also educate the public at home and abroad about the Delta’s historic role in music and literature.

Coahoma Community College’s President, Vivian Presley and the college’s communications director, Panny Mayfield, as well as many others associated with the event, did a great job bringing in scholars, actors, students, and others from across the country and many European participants. President Presley and Ms. Mayfield have participated in many Delta Caucus events either on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC or at the Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas, and they are to be congratulated for the success of the Tennessee Williams Festival over the years.

Here we attach excerpts from information on the Coahoma Community College website and from Associated Press and other news articles about the festival:

Information from Coahoma College: “Featuring porch plays and live drama starring Broadway stars, regional professionals and fledgling student actors, a literary conference with America’s top scholars, music, receptions and Southern cuisine in the childhood neighborhood of Brick, Blanche, and Baby Doll, the festival is a hometown celebration that has attracted critical acclaim.

Awarded the Mississippi Humanities Council’s prestigious Partner Award for excellence and community collaborations in February 2009, the festival was recorded for a BBC documentary titled, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” that aired in September 2009 for an audience of 13 million listeners in the UK.

Although Tennessee Willilams died in 1983, the popularity of his works continues globally and especially in the UK, according to BBC producer Carmel Lonergan speaking at the October 2009 Clarksdale festival.

Opening in January in London’s Novello Theatre is the celebrated Broadway production of “Cat” starring James Earl Jones, a native Mississippian, and Phylicia Rashad with programs expected to publicize Clarksdale’s 2010 festival.

Clarksdale has become a magnet for theatre professionals preparing for Tennessee Williams productions as far back as actress Barbara Bel Geddes arriving decades ago with legendary director Elia Kazan prior to her Broadway debut as “Maggie” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

In the early 1990s, French actors came to soak up Southern lore and guitar instruction before their production of “Orpheus Descending,” and an International Tennessee Williams Conference at the University of Nantes.

Traveling from London this summer before her role as Stella in the West End production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Golden Globe nominee Ruth Wilson, called her visit “invaluable” for her performance with Oscar winner Rachel Weisz as Blanche DuBois.

So did British actress Frances O’Conner who learned how “to speak Southern” several years ago in Coahoma County plantation homes before she earned standing ovations as Maggie.

“This visit to Clarksdale has been invaluable; for me as an actor it is very important to fill my body and mind with sense memories,” says Wilson whose 2008 performance in the Masterpiece Theatre television series,” Jane Eyre,” earned her four Best Actress nominations.

Among the sites she viewed were St. George’s Episcopal Church and former rectory, the Cutrer Mansion and Clarksdale’s historic district where he spent his childhood, the Stovall and Anderson plantations, Uncle Henry’s Place on Moon Lake, and miles of green Mississippi River levees, farmland, and cypress brakes.

“So on stage when I talk about Belle Reve (Clarksdale’s Cutrer Mansion is generally regarded as the ancestral home of Stella and Blanche in ‘Streetcar,’) or Moon Lake, I have an immediate and natural reaction to those places, those people,” she continues.

“It is a way for me to immerse myself in the world of the play; I can literally hear, smell, feel, and see those places, those people,” she says.

For the past several years Broadway actress Tammy Grimes, winner of two Tony Awards and a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame, has performed at the Clarksdale festival with actor/director Joel Vig, a member of the original cast of “Hairspray.”

Miss Grimes appeared in Vanessa Redgrave’s New York production of the Tennessee’s “Orpheus Descending,” and has forged solid friendships with Clarksdale residents.

Other festival regulars include Oxford actor Johnny McPhail, star of Sundance Film Festival winner, “Ballast,” and theatre veteran Erma Duricko, founder of Blues Roses Productions, who directs the Student Drama Competition.

In 2010 the African-American production of “Cat” in London will share connections with Clarksdale’s Williams Festival, since it is produced by one of America’s Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).

Featured uring the first festival in 1993 was Emmy Award winner Ruby Dee, who portrayed Amanda Wingfield from Tennessee Williams’ drama, “The Glass Menagerie…”

In 1995 Clarksdale’s festival was selected by the U.S. Postal Service to host the unveiling of the Tennessee Williams postage stamp and also the authorized biography of the playwright by writer Lyle Leverich…”

In November Vicksburg’s retired chancery clerk requested a special tour of Williams sites for “Twin Peaks” television series star Catherine Coulson in preparation for her role as Big Mama in the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” production at Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival in January.

Clarksdale’s festival organizers coordinate activities each spring with the Delta Literary Tour sponsored by the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, and are part of the Southern Literary Trail through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

Hosted by CCC with additional funding from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Rock River Foundation, local businesses and donors, the festival is free and open to the public. Reservations are required for meals.

The literary conference opens in CCC’s Whiteside Lecture Hall, and the Student Drama Competition is held in the Georgia Lewis Theatre. Live drama is presented at Oakhurst Middle School, Clarksdale’s historic district, and Clarksdale Station, the renovated passenger depot.

Featured at the October 15-16, 2010, Miss Markell spoke about her experiences directing the unproduced 1957 work with its setting in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis.

She also discussed her lifelong interest in Tennessee Williams since her portrayal of Laura Wingfield in a high school production of The Glass Menagerie.

“Coahoma has been hosting this wonderful conference since 1993; we are elated and honored to welcome Miss Markell to our campus,” commented Dr. Vivian Presley, CCC president.

“An accomplished actress and theatre professional, she is a native of Memphis and brings a unique understanding of Southern culture to the screen,” Presley continued.

Prior to the movie’s December 2009 screenings in Memphis, New York, and California, Miss Markell commented, “As a young actress, I saw a number of productions of Williams that did not feel true to me….Williams plays were being presented like awkward, dated, and dusty museum pieces….

“As a Southern woman, I felt a calling to reclaim Williams and bring his visually poetic world to the screen with as much vibrancy and authenticity as I could achieve in the hope of inspiring a new audience to rediscover this original American voice.”

While studying acting in New York City, Markell was introduced to “Teardrop,” and says she was struck by the lead character, Fisher Willow, a young woman struggling to find her voice and trying to understand how to connect with someone she loves.

“I related to Fisher’s call for understanding,” she says.

Markell says she realized she needed a cast of “thoroughbreds” to handle the unique rhythm and musicality of Williams dialogue.

Her first choice for the role of Fisher Willow was Bryce Dallas Howard, and Markell describes her as “the best of her generation.” The casting of Oscar-winning actress Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Chris Evans, Will Patton and Mamie Gummer soon followed.

Markell praises Tennessee’s “mysterious revelation of character,” and his choice to leave many questions unanswered.

Kenneth Holditch delivered the conference keynote address, and the panel of scholars moderated by Colby Kullman include English professors Ralph Voss and Ann Fisher-Wirth; creative writer and John Grisham Fellow Anna Baker, theatrical producer Robert Canon; and film critic and screenwriter Coop Cooper.

Because Tennessee Williams spent a great deal of his impressionable early childhood in Clarksdale where he was known as Tom and lived with his mother, sister, and grandparents, many of his works refer to actual places in Coahoma County and many of his characters are patterned on local residents.

Festival activities, receptions, dinners, and porch plays laced with blues and gospel music and Southern cuisine, take place in Clarksdale’s Tennessee Williams neighborhood where the U.S. postage stamp honoring him was unveiled in 1995 on a vintage front porch.

A documentary of the festival, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was recorded by the BBC and aired in August 2009 to an audience of 13 million in the UK. The festival also was awarded the 2009 Mississippi Humanities Council’s prestigious Partner Award for excellence and community collaborations.

Produced by Coahoma Community College and supported by grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Humanities Council, and the Rock River Foundation, the festival is free and open to the public. Reservations are required for food events. For festival updates, visit or telephone Coahoma’s Public Relations Department: 662-621-4157.


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) – “Expect to hear more about Tennessee Williams in coming months as festivals in Massachusetts, Louisiana and Mississippi gear up to celebrate the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s birth in 2011.”

Williams, born in Columbus, Miss., in 1911, spent his childhood in Clarksdale, an area set amid a sea of cotton plantations. As a young man, Williams moved to New Orleans, which would become the setting of one his greatest works, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

All three cities hold festivals in his honor, along with a theater festival in Provincetown, Mass.

“We really feel that Tennessee Willimas deserves a place in the national spotlight as a great American playwright. He wrote every day of his life and he changed what he was working on with the times,” said Jef Hall-Flavin, director of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival.

The Provincetown organizers will hold a yearlong commemoration that begins Jan. 31 with a performance at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., and culminates in September, Hall-Flavin said.

Hall-Flavin said all the festivals complement each other, but he thinks collaboration might be difficult.

“I think the logistics of getting four festivals to do the same thing at the same time is a bit daunting,” he said. “Each festival has its own flavor: Ours is performance. New Orleans is discussion and literature. In Columbus, they do house tours and in Clarksdale, they work with an educational mission.”

In Clarksdale, organizers are planning for 2011 while promoting this year’s festival that begins on Thursday. The 18th annual Mississippi Delta Tennessee Williams Festival will feature porch plays, readings, and panel discussions. This year’s emphasis is on Williams’ 1957 screenplay, “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.”

Austrian filmmaker Herbert Krill will be there shooting the event sponsored by Coahoma Community College for a documentary that will air on a German television station in 2011.

Krill said his documentary will focus on how Williams’ plays continue to attract theater crowds across Europe, more than three decades after the writer’s death in 1983. But Krill said the story wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of the Southern region that produced the artist.

“We are going to film in the Mississippi Delta because images from that region just seem to belong to a well-made documentary on Tennessee Williams,” Krill said. “Since it’s only 45 minutes, you cannot really do justice to all of the aspects of Tennessee Williams.”

The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival - the oldest of the four - will be held March 23-27. It kicks off with the premiere of three one-act plays, including “The Pretty Trap,” which later became “The Glass Menagerie…”

Kappi Allen, head of the Coahoma County Tourism Commission, said she’d like to come up with a marketing plan to cross-promote the events in 2011.

She said Williams brings steady tourism traffic to the Delta, but not on the same level as blues music. “You don’t have to be a scholar to enjoy Tennessee Williams and his work. That’s what I would love to see continue to be promoted and sold,” Allen said.