Tennessee Williams Festival

Tennessee Williams Fest pronounced ‘best ever!’

CLARKSDALE – “This was the best Tennessee Williams Festival ever,” says veteran drama judge Ann Fisher-Wirth of Oxford.

Echoed by dozens participating in the “Walking into Clarksdale” tour featuring civil rights era history in vintage churches to scenes from the playwright’s Delta plays performed in their original settings, rave reviews also included the fledgling high school actors in vibrant drama competition at Coahoma Community College.

Winning first place in the scene competition and a $700 cash prize for its school drama competition was Jackson Prep with its performance from “The Glass Menagerie.” Second place winner ($400) was Power APAC for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Other winners included: Monologue competition: Power APAC, $500, Mokallen Kelly, first place; Power APAC, Alora Griffth, second place, $200; Northwest Rankin High School, third place, Chris Russell, $100; Honorable Mention: Power APAC, Ella Rockoff.

Other winners: Best Costume, Power APAC, Ella Rockoff, $100; Judges Direction Award: Jackson Prep, Mary Frances Dickey, $100; the Colby Kullman Teacher Appreciation Award, Power APAC, Malika Quarterman, $200.

The  Stella Calling competition winners were Aidan Creel, male,  Jackson Prep, $100; and Shondrick Willingham,  female, Coahoma Early College High School, $100.

Kappi Allen, director of Visit Clarksdale, Coahoma Tourism, directed the competition and also hosted a luncheon for students and teachers prepared by CCC Chef Brennon Warr and his culinary students.

Other Saturday events included an open house hosted by the Clarksdale’s Woman’s Club, four porch plays in the Tennessee Williams historic district; and a movie screening of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” outside the Delta Blues Museum.

Sponsored by Coahoma Community College, the festival was supported by grants and contributions via a Mississippi Bicentennial Grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council and Visit Mississippi,  the Mississippi Arts Commission, Visit Clarksdale, the Chamber of Commerce, First National Bank of Clarksdale, and patrons: Mary Thompson, Jane and Jim Wilbourn.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Coahoma Community College’s concert choir under the direction of Kelvin Towers opens the festival in historic Haven United Methodist Church.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Standing before the vintage pipe organ at First Baptist Church, historian Dr. Claudett Williams leads a tour of her church, its artifacts and history from Clarksdale's civil rights era including the pulpit used by Dr. Martin Luther King. 

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Portraying Blanche DuBois, actress Alice Walker performs monologues from “A Streetcar Named Desire” in The Grange Cemetery near the burial site of Blanche Clark Cutrer.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Enjoying a lavish buffet at the Cutrer Mansion are photographer and frequent Clarksdale visitor  David Klein (left) of Los Angeles; Stara Moore of Houston, and Morgan Bearden,  consultant with the St. Louis Tennessee Williams Festival. Bearden's daughter successfully competed in Clarksdale's student drama competition more than a decade ago and he frequently returns to the Clarksdale celebration.

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Theatre director Dr. Matt Foss (standing) welcomes the audience to his company's performance of scenes from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in the Cutrer Mansion. Included among the guests were high school students from Jackson's Power APAC performing arts school who competed the next day in the student drama competition at Coahoma Community College. 

Tennesee Williams Festival 2017
Jackson Prep takes first place in the scene competition and $700 for its school drama department for its performance of “The Glass Menagerie.”

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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.

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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.

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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.