Linda Byrd Kilian
Linda Byrd Kilian
You're pushing 60 years old, you live in Mississippi, and you've never, ever written a play. A column for a small-town newspaper that lasted two years, yes. Some poetry, too. But never a play. In fact, you don't know a damned thing about theater, partly because you've spent the last 25 years of your life teaching seventh grade.

But when a friend sees your book of poems and says to you, "I think this might make a good play," you start thinking along those lines and begin writing. Then you hear about the Mississippi Arts Council contest that only asks for 20 pages of what you've done, so you send them off and hope for the best.

"I didn't expect anything," says Linda Byrd Kilian, who has spent much time sending her material to the powers-that-be without getting a positive response. "I love being rejected by The New Yorker," she adds. "They send engraved rejection slips. It's a little like being stabbed with a pearl-handled knife. You're hurt and impressed at the same time."

But -- wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles -- one of the judges who read 20 pages from many a Mississippian in the 2001 competition is Gwen Orel, the literary manager of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. On the basis of what she saw in Kilian's Aaronville Dawning, she cast her vote to give its playwright first prize. So did some of the other judges, and Kilian not only took home $5,000, but was also invited to submit the rest of the play to the Southern Writers' Project that festival artistic director Kent Thompson started in 1991.

The first play produced as part of the project was Grover, by local journalist Randy Hall, in 1993. I admired that one and the next, The Moving of Lilla Barton by John MacNicholas, in 1994. But Lizard by Dennis Covington was even better. My enthusiasm was partly due to the fact that the actor playing "Lizard" -- a young man taunted by his schoolmates for looking reptilian and walking ever-so-slowly with an impairment -- was a new actor named Norbert Leo Butz who, as I wrote in the June 1994 issue of Theater Week, gave the best performance I had seen all year. Plenty of people have said similar things about him since they saw him in Cabaret, Thou Shalt Not, and The Last 5 Years. And they just might do so again when Wicked opens.

Of course, while initiatives like the Southern Writers' Project start off by attracting unknown authors, it's not long before the big guns find out and make their own submissions. So Horton Foote submitted his play Vernon Early and saw it premiere in Montgomery in 1998. In 2000, works by Romulus Linney (A Lesson Before Dying) and Regina Taylor (A Night in Tunisia) were staged. With more established writers muscling into the Southern Writers' Project, what chance did a 59-year-old teacher without an agent have?

So Kilian, who had never heard of the project and had never visited the festival, sent in her script and wondered what the rejection letter would look like. But Thompson agreed with Orel that this one was a keeper, and the two offered Kilian a workshop later that year. Recalls the writer, "I said, 'Are you sure I'm supposed to be there with people who have been playwrights for a while?' And they kept saying yes."

The play tells of Lemy Babin Caldwell, a woman now in her mid-80s who is once again making the food that will be served following a funeral. This time, the deceased is Beasley, a man who had suddenly stopped talking 60 years earlier. "He was always around people but never being a part of people," Lemy notes, "like someone looking in a window but never going inside."

Kilian sure goes inside Lemy's character while the lady makes the Mississippi treats on which those mourning Beasleys will eventually feast. She gives a casual oral history of Aaronville and its townspeople: The sheriff, who sounds like a big-hearted guy but who was bought off by the town's richest citizen; the white man who took in a young, abandoned black man but thought nothing of whipping him any time the kid did something "wrong"; the woman who routinely performed abortions for $12; Lemy's stillborn sister. And just why did Beasley stop talking?

En route, Lemy comes out with opinions that are sometimes her own and sometimes from others -- including "Everyone here starts out poor, praying, and pregnant, and ends up sick, dying, and dead." Some of what she says would have made her a welcome visitor on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, from references to "the Chinaman's store" to "Nigra preachers have too many women around them" to "Nigras know a lot more about white people's morals than you think they do." Others aren't as threatening, unless you're one of those hospital doctors who specializes in a certain area and doesn't have much concern for the patient herself. Notes Lemy: "Somebody was treating my kidneys, somebody was treating my colon, somebody was treating my arthritis, and somebody was treating my heart, but nobody was treating me."

Carole Monferdini
Carole Monferdini
The workshop went splendidly and, in February of this year, Aaronville Dawning was produced at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with Carole Monferdini as Lemy under Thompson's direction. "I'm still surprised," Kilian says, "that there I was with Kia Cothron." (That's the esteemed playwright whose The Venus De Milo Is Not Armed was also a Southern Writers' Project offering.) During the run, Kilian turned 60, and she's still in awe of the impromptu party and fuss that everybody made over her. As she says, "I was astonished to find that here, the playwright is God. They actively seek your opinion, and don't do anything unless they have your permission. When you're a teacher, it's hard to find anyone who'll treat you that way."

Kilian may be more of a natural than she suspects. After all, her calling the play Aaronville Dawning virtually guarantees that it will be listed first in the ABC's in the Times once it gets its Broadway or Off-Broadway production. And it should: Somewhere out there is a virtually forgotten Broadway or Hollywood actress who still can memorize a text and can offer a performance that will give her and the play a whole new life. It's not too late for anything so miraculous to happen; Linda Byrd Kilian has proved that and has once again demonstrated that those who teach can often do other remarkable things as well.

By the way, you needn't be an old-timer like Kilian to get your work done. There's also a Young Southern Writers' Project. Around the time time that Kilian and Aaronville Dawning were heralded, so were 15-year-old Michael Griffith and his play Perpetual Motion, which won the junior division's competition. For the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and the Southern Writers' Project, excellence -- not age -- is the criterion. If you live South of the Mason-Dixon line and you've got a play, contact the Festival. No matter who you are, you'll be taken seriously.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]