Shortly after my first article appeared in YES! Weekly, my landlord said something about its subject I’d never known. “When I was a boy in the ‘50s,” he told me, “parked cars were lined up half a mile down Holden Road every Saturday night, with folks driving in from out of state and knocking on your Uncle Olan’s door to buy his moonshine.”
I remembered that when talking to Triad Stage associate artistic director Sarah Hankins about White Lightning, a play about moonshine and NASCAR by Alabama dramatist Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder (Fresh Kills, The Bone Orchard) that has its North Carolina premiere on Jan. 27. Directed by Hankins and starring David Bowen, Erin Schmidt, Michael Tourek, Carrol Michael Johnson and Stanton Nash, White Lightning runs in the Pyrle Theater at 232 S. Elm St. in Greensboro through Feb. 17.
“It’s a particularly Southern story,” said Hankins when I met with her, Bowen and Tourek in a Triad Stage conference room two weeks ago to talk about the upcoming production they sounded very excited about. “I feel that we’ve gotten enough generations away from that. Those family secrets are coming out. I remember I had never really heard about it when I was a kid or even when I was in my 20s, but after I passed a certain age, my family stopped editing the stories they were telling me.”
But, she said, this “particularly Southern story” is not one that’s been often told in the American theater. “And so, having a play about it, one that connects to our community and our shared history is really great.”
She said she thinks this is true of NASCAR as well. “How many plays, aside from [Janet Allard’s] Vrooommm!, which we produced a couple of years ago, are about that?”
White Lightning had its world premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2016 in Montgomery, where Wilder is playwright-in-residence, after being workshopped in the ASF’s Southern Writers’ Project two years earlier. Her widely-produced Gee’s Bend, about African-American quilt-makers in a small Alabama town, also began at ASF, and her Fresh Kills, about a Staten Island mechanic, stalked by the teenaged boy he had cybersex with, premiered in 2004 at London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre.
In a 2016 interview with New York playwright and theater journalist Kenneth Jones, Wilder said that, while White Lightning’s 1947 setting is never specified, it was inspired by Dawsonville, Georgia, a community with strong ties to both moonshine and NASCAR. Her script drops names such as Red Vogt, the master mechanic who founded the National Association for Stock Car Racing, and a bevy of legendary drivers and promoters. (She clearly knows the milieu.)
Director Hankins praised the author’s “particular knack for capturing Southern speech and dialect,” especially in regards to code-switching. “Like how, when I’m with some people, I’ll speak in a particular way, but when I feel really casual, I’ll start dropping ‘ain’t’ into the conversation,” said Hankins of Wilder’s script. “It shows a deep appreciation for the poetry of Southern language.”
I asked Hankins how her two actors avoided clichés made familiar by everything from the other White Lightning, the 1973 film that turned Burt Reynolds into what one critic called the Cary Grant of Southern Drive-Ins, to T.V.’s Dukes of Hazzard, in which no illegal whiskey is actually made or transported by the squeaky-clean Bo and Luke Duke (although it certainly is in Moonrunners, the gritty and violent 1975 action-comedy based on real-life moonshiner Jerry Rushing which in turned inspired the family-friendly 1979-1985 series about “good ol’ boys/never meanin’ no harm”)
“You just do what you can to make these 1940s moonshining Southern men as truthful as possible,” said the imposing Tourek, whom I remembered from his days at the Green Burro, where he was once runner-up for the YES! Weekly Triad’s Best award for “Hottest Bartender, Male” (and who in 2013 was voted Best Male Local Theater Actor in that annual contest), before appearing in six 2017-2018 episodes of the acclaimed Netflix crime drama Ozark. Tourek plays Hank Taylor, the affable but ruthless auto shop owner and bootlegger who offers young World War II vet Avery McAllister a chance to make money running ‘shine.
“We got those clichés for a reason,” said Bowen, a 2015 UNCSA grad who performed with NYC’s Attic Theatre Company before making his Triad Stage debut as Avery. “They are real people. I’m from Northeast Georgia. They filmed Deliverance in my home town. I grew up with these people. Sure, they’re archetypes; the revenuer, the moonshiner, the fallen golden boy, but there’s so much truth underneath all of that, and it’s written in such a way that it manages to tell their stories without diving into cliché.”
“And it helps to have your director go, ‘you’re gonna want to do that a little different, Mike,’” added Tourek sardonically, crooking a finger at Hankins. “Or help you when you’re really defining that world, really defining the truth of it.”
Tourek said that “it helps that we’re doing the play here, meaning in the South, but it also makes it more difficult. Ninety percent of the people who see this play are going to know who these people are, but because they’re going to know, we have to make sure we play the person and not the caricature.”
Hankins recalled her first script discussion with Tourek. “He said he didn’t see the depth of Hank. I was encouraging him to go back and look again, saying that Hank is actually a very layered character, but one also very good at presenting a certain image to society, making us fall into a pattern of believing that surface image. That’s what makes it such a surprise when he’s so deadly because we’ve almost dismissed him. His danger gives him more depth than we first imagine.”
She said that playwright Wilder is very clever in the way she presents a recognizably authentic Southern society while also subverting the expectations of the audience. She described the play as very exciting “to both people who know something about moonshining and NASCAR, and who will find lots of little details that will excite them,” but is also hugely accessible to those totally unfamiliar with either. “She’s laid out the story in such a way that you’ll immediately recognize the importance of certain moments, even if you don’t know the terminology.”
Gangsters were once staples of the American stage, with the 1935 Broadway hit The Petrified Forest making a movie star of its villain Humphrey Bogart when he repeated the role for the 1936 movie version, and petty criminals have populated the plays of Sam Shepard and David Mamet. But Southern bootleggers, not to mention NASCAR, seem more associated with movies. I asked Hankins how she took a theatrical approach to these cinematic tropes.
“One thing that’s been really exciting about this play is the incredible creative team we had supporting us as the cast, and I dived into this world,” she said, adding that “it’s a happy side note” that all the members of that team are women.
“It’s my first time as a director working with an all-female creative team; the designers, the assistant director, the dramaturg, the movement coach and the dialect coach are all women.” She said it was something she didn’t realize until she walked into the first production meeting. “It shouldn’t be extraordinary that it’s an all-female team, but it still feels that way in the moment.”
What she found even more extraordinary was their work on this project. “This team has been wonderful about creating a world where sound and light and movement and the set all work together to create the excitement of NASCAR. Our set has mason jars all around it that will light up to bring you to the race. Our sound designer, Maria Württele, is working on soundscape where, as soon as you hit one of the races, you’re embedded.”
She also praised the playwright for “giving us a fun thing where three of the male characters play announcers at the races, letting you hear them as the sound and the light are going on. So, you get swept from these intimate scenes in the garage between Avery and his girlfriend Dixie, straight into a NASCAR race.”
Hankins said she used to attend NASCAR races regularly. “Some of our designers hadn’t been so familiar with that world, so bringing them into that space has been exciting, as they get a sense of how a race works, of the vibration and sound you feel in your body.”
She had particular kudos for Virginia Hirsch, whose title of dramaturg means, in this context, that she’s essentially the play’s historical researcher and consultant. “I always like to think of it as though we’re building a house in the rehearsal room and the dramaturg focuses, not just on what’s inside the house, but the world outside its doors. When we have a question about, say, dating habits in the 1940s, we get an email answer from her about couple behavior.”
Bowen said that his character suffers an injury in a crash. “So, we’re in rehearsal, and we decide it’s a rotor cuff injury and trying to figure out how I’m going to move my shoulder, and she’s right there, taking notes.” The next day, she sent him an email. “It was so detailed, about acute rotator cuff tears, all the details, all the specific research you need to do, but that we actors might not have the time to do.”
Hankins said that Hirsch’s work on the production was unusual in the American theater right now. “Everybody is trying to cut costs as they deal with corporate funding being down, all those financial matters that make you look around the room and see who is the nonessential person. We’ve made a particular commitment to keeping the dramaturg in the room because we think it’s so valuable. It lets me focus on the moment that’s right here on stage, and she can be doing the research while we’re working.”
As I didn’t get a chance to talk to leading actress Erin Schmidt, I asked Hankins about her character, Dixie James.
Hanks called Dixie “a spitfire of a woman” who works at a factory but is studying accounting, and who falls in love with Avery against her better judgment. “Her father had a history of running ‘shine as well, and so she wants to stay far away from that world, but as you might guess by looking at David, can’t help but fall for him.”
She said that other characters included Mutt (Stanton Nash), Hank’s mechanic, “a taciturn character who has a big effect on the room without saying much.” Then there’s Chester Pike (Carroll Michael Johnson), the county revenue agent, who is paid off by Hank, which creates tension when federal revenuers come to town.
Hankins called White Lightning “kind of a love letter to both moonshine and NASCAR,” but also described it as Avery’s coming of age story. “It asks us to follow his journey as he discovered some truths about himself, especially the danger that he’s put himself into by joining up with Hank’s organization.”
She described moonshine as a potentially lucrative business in the postwar American South, where national prohibition was long gone, but local dry laws, as well as cultural traditions, still made it precious contraband. “It was also sort of an economic necessity for a lot of people. One of the few ways to get out of poverty was to engage in this business. But it could also cost your life or your freedom. Avery is a little wide-eyed and eager and a bit cocky, and so he goes into it with blinders on. And thanks to the intelligence and grounding provided by his true love, Dixie, he finds himself in a position where he has to get out of the business, or he might die.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.
Preview performances are Jan. 27 and 29-31, with Friday, Feb. 1, the official grand opening. From there it plays every Tuesday through Sunday through the 17, with matinees on Feb. 9, 10 and 16. Go to www.triadstage.org for ticket prices and purchasing.