LeapFest XII starts in less than one week with Evan Linder’s play Byhalia, Mississippi, which tells the story of Jim and Laurel, a Southern couple faced with the biggest challenge of their lives when Laurel gives birth to a black baby boy, the result of an affair the previous year. We pulled him away from rewrites for a few quick questions
SLT: What was the inspiration for Byhalia, Mississippi?
EVAN: The first reading of Byhalia (BYE HALE YUH… don’t be scared of it. You can do it.) occurred before marriage equality had taken effect in Illinois. I was writing this play to see if I even believed in this right that so many of us were fighting for. I did not understand why marriage was important to the generation least interested in actually getting married than any other in our country’s history. If “traditional marriage” was being exposed as just a political buzzword, was the concept of a “successful marriage” a fallacy as well? And even if there was such a thing, I knew the “successful marriage” I wanted to write would be as messy, complicated and unconventional as possible.
I also knew as a Southerner that my red-state play was on the horizon. I was raised in Collierville, TN just ten miles north of Byhalia, and one thing stuck out to me as a ten-year old who constantly owed his allowance to the library for overdue plays: portrayals of Southerners are often pretty appalling in the world of theater. It seemed that playwrights always found it easier to condescend rather than to tell the truth. I didn’t understand as I read as many plays as I could get my hands on who these people were supposed to be. And then of course, you get a little older and discover Beth Henley and things seem like they will be okay for awhile. But even (especially?) today, I felt there was a need for a play about the people who loved me first, written by someone who loved them back even if we only agree on two things: love each other and tell the truth. I wanted to create a play that could actually spark a conversation rather than preach to the secular humanist choir.
SLT: An excellent segue to our next question. Our mission is to raise debate on social and political issues. Tell us how your play fits that mission. What is the conversation Byhalia sparks?
EVAN: Byhalia explores how to create a world in which we see those around us as someone else’s child first before we see them as an “other”. The problem with creating that world is that no one wants to deal with any past mistakes in order to move forward. If all we want to do is love each other and tell the truth, what will it take for us to actually roll up our sleeves and start telling that truth? What can we forgive and what is unforgivable? To frame those questions in a setting as racially divided as where I grew up has been the challenge of Byhalia, both for me and the audiences who have heard it along the way to Leapfest.
SLT: How has the LeapFest process been helpful?
I was so excited for Leapfest as a way to see my finished play up on its feet for the first time. Finished play. I was finished. It was a finished play. (You know where this is going…)
I wasn’t finished at all. Stage Left put me in a room with a team who forced me to keep going, dig deeper and to write them something better. So the Leapfest process has been invaluable and also, for someone who was looking forward to the new season of True Detective and has not seen any of it, it has been extremely annoying. Leapfest: Invaluable and Annoying. I’ll make the t-shirts.
SLT: Don’t worry. We hear this season of TD is disappointing. What is next for you?
EVAN: I have several plays that are in some sort of developmental phase right now and am getting away for a week in July to the SWARM residency in Michigan to write some more. I’m also leading the second session of The New Colony’s Writers Room which begins this month as well. The Writers Room gets ten playwrights in a room and focuses on different tools to use when you have access to other writers while you write. It allows them to hear each other’s work and make personal connections to the stories being brought to the table.
I’m also loving everything about producing our newest world premiere at The New Colony that opens July 30th at The Den. It is called Stanley in the Name of Love and is a dance pop musical set in the world of gay porn that is written by Mr. Margaret Svetlove and directed by Sean Kelly who may or may not also be Mr. Margaret Svetlove.
Byhalia, Mississippi plays Monday, 7/13 @ 7:30pm; Saturday 7/25 @ 2pm; Wednesday, 7/29 @ 7:30pm