In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, PEARL MCHANEY, of Georgia State University, encourages readers to listen for the voice of truth in the arts and humanities.
By Pearl McHaney
At the height of the Cold War, 1954, American fiction writer Eudora Welty found herself in Cambridge, England, speaking at an American Studies conference:
Mutual understanding in the world being nearly always, as now, at low ebb, it is comforting to remember that it is through art that one country can nearly always speak reliably to another, if the other can hear at all. Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.
Where and how can we hear that voice of truth? Perhaps in places such as the SaportaReport, on National Public Radio, by reading, and through the arts as Welty suggests. Time is of the essence to hear one another. This sort of urgency propels writers to capture the archangel of fiction — feeling — with characters, dialogue, imagination, and action to show what British writer Henry Green says is “a web of insinuations … a long intimacy of strangers.”
One means of supporting artists and art and to hear truth is found in the arena of the theater, where community is rather instantly created by the physical space and the collective experience. This season, beginning February 14 at noon, at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, Southern Writers Onstage: Women in Black and White offers the kind of opportunities such as I am suggesting: four dramatic readings of stories by writers Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.
The stories are of men and women, black and white, young and old, listening and not listening to one another, to history, to music. Atlanta’s finest actors — Brenda Bynum, Eric Moore, Carolyn Cook, Bernardine Mitchell — joined by Valerie Boyd, the award-winning biographer of Zora Neale Hurston and editor of Alice Walker’s journals, will read the short stories on Theatrical Outfit’s stage at the Balzer Theater. Stories “teach us how to be human,” says Scott Russell Sanders, for literature is “a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.”
First up, today, February 14, is appropriately a story of love – Eudora Welty’s “Powerhouse.” At a white dance in Alligator, Mississippi, the narrator swoons over the larger-than-life jazz musician Powerhouse, a song and piano man based on Fats Waller. Waller recorded a stunning performance of Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind” that we most often associate with Georgia’s Ray Charles, but we also hear “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” and “This Joint Is Jumpin’” when we tune into Waller. “Powerhouse” gets complicated when the jazz man takes his break at the World Café in Negrotown, segregated from the white audience. The story “Powerhouse,” to be read by Brenda Bynum (Violet Weston in August Osage County) and Eric Moore (Fats Waller in Ain’t Misbehavin), has been called one of America’s finest jazz stories.
In counterpoint to “Powerhouse” is Alice Walker’s story “Nineteen Fifty-five,” to be presented on February 21. Here, the protagonists Traynor and Gracie Mae are fictionalizations of Elvis Presley and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Although not named, it is Thornton’s song “Hound Dog,” written especially for the blues singer by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, that Traynor buys and turns into his own #1 hit. Although he becomes rich and famous, Traynor cannot find contentment and returns again and again to ask Gracie Mae, “But what does it mean?”
Thornton left her Montgomery, Alabama, home at age fourteen to tour with Atlanta’s “Sammy Green’s Hot Harlem Review,” a band that seems to be a footnote in music history only because of Thornton’s participation. We know more about Elvis Presley, beginning with his eleven television appearances and double-sided hit “Hound Dog”/“Don’t Be Cruel” in 1956. Following successful shows in Macon, Georgia, in 1975 and 1976, Governor Jimmy Carter declared January 8, 1977, to be Elvis Presley Day in Georgia. Valerie Boyd, Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, will channel Alice Walker’s truth-telling about singing the blues from the heart.
The final two performances in the Southern Writers Onstage series are Carolyn Cook reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (March 28) and Bernardine Mitchell reading Toni Morrison’s only published short story “Recitatif” (April 4). In a time when the arts are (again) under threat of defunding, it is comforting to know that such champions as Georgia Humanities, Theatrical Outfit, and Georgia State University’s Center for Collaborative and International Arts are still listening. It is through their support that we can hear the voices of these individuals (Welty, Powerhouse, Bynum, Moore, Walker, Traynor, Gracie Mae, Boyd, O’Connor, Cook, Morrison, and Mitchell) for free, at noontime, at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s, the site of the first downtown Atlanta restaurant to integrate its tables.
Pearl McHaney is the Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature and Director of the Center for Collaborative and International Arts at Georgia State University.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.