Tennessee Williams Festival

Tennessee Williams celebrated on multiple stages

Record number of students – 120 compete in annual drama contest

CLARKSDALE – On stages from Whiteside Hall and the Georgia Lewis Theatre of Coahoma Community College to the Cutrer Mansion and four vintage front porches, Clarksdale celebrated its native son Tennessee Williams over the weekend in high Mississippi Delta style befitting America’s great playwright.

Although the festival was a prestigious Pulitzer Centennial event with scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire, one of his Pulitzer Prize winners, being performed several times, student actors also offered a kaleidoscope of performances from other dramas.

T-shirt ripping frequently occurs during the festival’s favorite student Stella-calling competition, Bynum Gustufson from Oak Grove High School took top honors wearing and taking his time ripping through a layer of three shirts.

Matt Foss/Vandal Theatre actors Elizabeth Thompson portraying Stella and Drew McCubbin as Stanley accompanied by guitarist Stan Allyn opened the literary conference Friday morning with a brief scene from the play; took center stage in the Cutrer Mansion’s Grande Reception Friday night, and repeated the drama Saturday afternoon on the porch of the Barr/Brewer house.

A record number of high school students – more than 120 – from Hattiesburg, Jackson, Brandon, Oxford, Hernando, Lake Cormorant, and Clarksdale left hometowns as early as 5 a.m. to compete CCC’s elite acting competition, according to Kappi Allen, contest director.

In a structured, timed frame students compete individually in monologues from Williams plays; in a scene competition, Stella-calling contest, costume. Judges are out-of-town theatre professionals.    CCC awards $3,000 in cash prizes to the high school drama department winners, and students are awarded trophies.

Winners of the scene competition include: 1st place ($700), Oak Grove High School; 2nd ($400) Northwest Rankin; 3rd, Power APAC, Jackson, $200; Monologue winners: 1st place ($500)  Madison DeBerry, Oak Grove High School; 2nd ($200) Andrew 0’Quinn, Oak Grove High School; 3rd place ($100) Kingsley Nwakone PowerAPAC.

Other winners include Best Costume ($100/trophy) Greta Thorderson, Oak Grove High School; Stella Calling: Male ($100/trophy) Bynum Gustufson, Oak Grove High; Female $100/trophy Taylor Perkins, Lafayette High School; Judges Award: ($100) Kingsley Nwakorie, Power APAC; Teacher Appreciation award ($200) endowned by Dr. Colby Kullman, Suzanne Allman, Oak Grove High.

Sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the festival is supported also by grants from CCC, the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Pulitzer Foundation, Visit Clarksdale – Coahoma County Tourism, the Chamber of Commerce, individual patrons and businesses.  Partnering with the festival are the City of Clarksdale, Delta Blues Museum, Carnegie Public Library, the Coahoma County Higher Education Center, St. George’s Episcopal Church, the Clarksdale Woman’s Club, Clarksdale Garden Club, and the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival.

Oak Grove High School Students
Winning first place in the scene from THE GLASS MENAGERIE, are students from Oak Grove High School.

Bynum Gustufson
Wearing  and ripping multiple t-shirts in the Stella-Calling Contest is Bynum Gustufson from Oak Grove High School.


Elizabeth Thompson as Stella and Drew McCubbin as Stanley
Surrounded by guests attending the festival’s Grande Reception, Elizabeth Thompson as Stella and Drew McCubbin as Stanley perform a scene from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE in the Cutrer Mansion’s drawing room

Beneath paper lanterns reminiscent of the lavish Delta parties hosted by Blanche and J. W. Cutrer, guests at Friday's Tennessee Williams Festival Grande Reception enjoy live drama from A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Dave Dunavant's guitar music, and a gourmet buffet from the Dutch Oven. 

Bill Luckett

Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett welcomes more than 120 fledgling actors to Saturday's elite Student Drama Competition in the Georgia Lewis Theatre of Coahoma Community College.

In a Master Scholar  panel Dr. Ralph Voss (left) and Dr. Kenneth Holditch critique the playwright's two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF in CCC's Whiteside Lecture Hall.

The heroines in plays by Tennessee Williams are interesting subjects studied by (from left) filmmaker Karen Kohlhaas, actress Susan McPhail, and scholar/poet Ann Fisher-Wirth

STREETCAR to star at 24th Tennessee Williams Fest

Annual celebration, a Pulitzer Centennial event, scheduled Sept. 30-Oct. 1

Shelly Ritter and Randall Andrews

Clarksdale residents Shelley Ritter and Randall Andrews arrive at the Cutrer Mansion’s Grande Reception in 2015 attired as Tennessee Williams leading characters from CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF:  Maggie and Brick Pollit. Guests are encouraged again to come as their favorite Tennessee Williams character.

CLARKSDALE- Although A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic Tennessee Williams drama, is set in New Orleans, its ties to Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta are unmistakable, agree scholars booked for the 24th Williams Festival here Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

Sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the festival is a Pulitzer Centennial event and will feature scenes from Streetcar as its centerpiece, according to Marilyn Starks, project director.

Staging the drama inside the Cutrer Mansion – a setting regarded by many as Streetcar’s Belle Reve, the lost ancestral home of Blanche DuBois - will be the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

The group earned standing ovations here in 2015 for its innovative performance of The Glass Menagerie and applause ALSO followed them later in the Kennedy Center and the Moscow Art Theatre in Russia.

Beneath paper lanterns reminiscent of the lavish Delta parties and masked balls hosted by J. W. and Blanche Clark Cutrer, guests are encouraged to come as their favorite Tennessee Williams characters. 

Blues guitarist Dave Dunavant will provide music before the drama.

As a Pulitzer presentation, the Friday night drama will be introduced by Dr. Kenneth Holditch, who delivered the keynote address at the Tennessee Williams portrait unveiling in Mississippi’s Hall of Fame ceremony in April, and Dr. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, Pulitzer Centennial sponsor in Mississippi. The production is being funded in part by MHC and also the Mississippi Arts Commission.

Opening earlier Friday morning in Coahoma Community College’s Whiteside Lecture Hall with a welcome by Dr. Valmadge Towner, CCC president and music by the college’s Concert Choir, the literary conference offers a taste of Streetcar from the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

Afterward Starks guarantees three panels of Tennessee Williams specialists will evoke excitement, dialogue, questions and even arguments from the audience.

Tennessee’s heroines will be dissected by a trio including Ann Fisher-Wirth, English professor/poet; Karen Kohlhaas, filmmaker/theatre professional; and Susan McPhail, actor/director. 

A Master Scholar critique of Tennessee’s two Pulitzer Prize winners: Streetcar and Cat will feature scholars Kenneth Holditch, Colby Kullman, and Ralph Voss.

A final panel pinpointing Mississippi Delta’s influences on Tennessee will include Coop Cooper, journalist/filmmaker/critic; Kenneth Holditch and Colby Kullman, scholars; and Karen Kohlhaas, filmmaker/theatre professional.

The festival offers registered educators continuing education credits (CEDs).

Saturday’s agenda opens and stars the highly competitive and elite student drama contest in the Georgia Lewis Theatre. It is open to the public.  Afterward students and drama coaches will be treated to a hot luncheon prepared by CCC Chef Brennon Warr and his culinary students. Visitors with reservations ($10) are invited to join the celebration.

The festival moves downtown to Clarksdale’s historic district for a welcome to St. George’s Episcopal Church by the Rev. Jason Shelby. It will be followed by tours of the former rectory being renovated in a recreation of the period when Dakin and Williams families lived there.  It also will include festival memorabilia from 24 years.

Across the street, the Clarksdale Woman’s Club – one of the city’s oldest community organizations – will host an open house offering refreshments and a place to relax between porch plays in the adjoining historic district.  

From 3 – 5 p.m. audiences will be seated in lawn chairs before turn-of-the-century homes to enjoy four porch play performances of Tennessee Williams plays. Informal interactions between actors and fans are expected to follow each drama. 

On stage will be theatre veterans/festival favorites:  Alice Walker, Susan and Johnny McPhail from Oxford; Sherrye Williams and Jim Schnalebach from Clarksdale; the Matt Foss Theatre group; and a top student cast representing the festival’s drama competition.

The festival is free and open to all with the exception of food events that require advance reservations. Friday night’s Grande Reception/Buffet ($25) is catered by The Dutch Oven, andSaturday’s luncheon ($10) at CCC. For reservations, contact Coahoma Tourism, P.O. 1770, Clarksdale, MS 38614 or telephone: 662-627-6149.

Inaugurated in 1993 by CCC President Vivian Presley through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the festival has been honored with MHC’s Partner Award and documented by the BBC and European Public Television.

The festival is supported by grants from CCC, MHC, MAC, Visit Mississippi, Visit Clarksdale, local businesses, organizations and individual patrons.

Other partners include the Chamber of Commerce, Coahoma County Higher Education Center, Delta Blues Museum, St. George’s Episcopal Church, the Sunflower River Blues Association, Carnegie Public Library, and the City of Clarksdale.

Porch Play

Clarksdale’s historic district and the Dr. Barr/Gov. Brewer Mansion is the porch play setting for THE GLASS MENAGERIE in 2015 performed by the Matt Foss Theatre actors.

Cutrer Mansion

Beneath paper lanterns Grande Reception guests in the Cutrer Mansion surround the Matt Foss Theatre actors performing scenes from THE GLASS MENAGERIE in 2015.