Legitimate theatre and NASCAR racing make a rare marriage March 3-May 7, 2016, with the world premiere of White Lightning, playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s imagining of the moonshine-runnin’ roots of the sport, at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery. Wilder’s widely produced Alabama-set play Gee’s Bend, about small-town African-American quilters, also began at ASF. The new play is more about tread than thread, but in some ways they are still sister plays.
2019 Editor’s Note: A new production plays Jan. 27-Feb. 17, 2019, at Triad Stage in Greensboro, NC, featuring an all-female creative team led by Sarah Hankins. Visit triadstage.org for more information.
“When I wrote Gee’s Bend,” Alabama native Wilder told me, “I worked very hard to get the voices of the characters right. Any time you tell a story based on real people I feel like you have a responsibility to try to tell the story honestly and to maintain the integrity of the people. While the subject matter of White Lightning is dramatically different from Gee’s Bend, I don’t think the heart of the story is that different. They are both stories about people who grew up isolated, people with limited resources who want something better for their lives, and people who overcome great — but very different — obstacles.”
In the new play, young veteran Avery McAllister (played by Matthew Goodrich) wants economic and emotional freedom following World War II, and he finds it running moonshine in a souped-up 1939 Ford. He meets his match in Dixie (played by Becca Ballenger), who shares a wish for solid roots but hopes the foundation can be laid on more respectable business.
Here’s how ASF bills the play: “The fictionalized account of Avery McAllister’s exploits in the 1940s tailgates the real story of stock car racing’s early stars and the beginnings of NASCAR.” Talladega Superspeedway, the NASCAR track in Alabama, is one of the sponsors of the production, which plays ASF’s mainstage. Find information and tickets here.
Wilder said, “Gee’s Bend resonates with people because they want these women to triumph, but also because most people have a story about quilting or their relationships with the women in their families that makes the story feel accessible and relatable. I think that people experience White Lightning in a similar way. We want Avery to win and we want to see his dream come true. After the first reading of White Lightning I was overrun with people who wanted to share a story about the cars their dad restored, or their uncle who ran moonshine.”
White Lightning is a big slice of American dreaming, with Avery outrunning government revenuers and moving from “winding dirt backroads to the burgeoning racing circuit of the South, where there’s lots of money to be made and even more attention to be had,” according to ASF. “Romance and adventure” are in the mix.
And one of the stars of the show is an on-stage car.
“The car becomes a character in the play and we see the car evolve along with Avery, its owner,” Wilder explained. “It starts out being an old wreck that this kid has pieced together and as Avery becomes more successful, the car gets nicer and nicer. For this production, the theatre found an old 1939 Ford in a field in Texas. The shop basically took it all apart and put it back together so that part of it feels whole and the other part appears to be skeleton. I’ve always thought that the car could be as real or as representational as the production desires.”
ASF producing artistic director Geoffrey Sherman directs White Lightning. The production team includes scenic designer James Wolk, costume designer Pamela Scofield, lighting designer Travis McHale, sound designer Brett Rominger, dramaturg Susan Willis, stage manager Melissa A. Nathan and production assistant Victoria Thomas.
The cast also features ASF veteran Rodney Clark (King Lear, Bear Country) as bootlegger and racing entrepreneur Hank Taylor, Larry Tobias as mechanic Mutt and Brik Berkes as lawman Chester Pike.
I first met Wilder in 2013 when my play Alabama Story and her play Provenance were read as part of the Southern Writers’ Project Festival of New Plays at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. (In 2014, a version of White Lightning, then called ‘Shine, was part of SWP.)
Here are excerpts from my recent interview with Wilder.
Take me back to the roots of White Lightning? What was the first whisper of the idea?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I saw something on TV about moonshine and the early days of NASCAR. When I think about the stories I respond to, they are always these smaller, unknown stories that resonate in a greater context. This was a little piece of the American story I knew nothing about. I wasn’t necessarily interested in moonshining or NASCAR, but I was really intrigued by the way the two were connected.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: The Alabama Shakespeare Festival has been my artistic home for a long time. I feel really fortunate to have a place to work and grow as a writer. They actually commissioned me to write a different play, but after doing some research I didn’t feel like it was a play I could write. I didn’t want to lose the commission, so I pitched this story. Alabama Shakespeare Festival lives to develop new work about Southern culture, so I knew this would be appealing. The challenge then was to figure out how to make it work on the stage.
Is White Lightning set in Alabama?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: The play is set in 1947, but the exact location is never referenced. The story was inspired by the community in Dawsonville, GA, which has a strong connection to both moonshining and NASCAR.
How much of the play is a precocious “vision” of the people and passions that led to NASCAR racing, and how much of the play reflects real events? It never reads like a documentary, it’s about the spirit of the people.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I tried to follow the actual timeline, and all of the racers referenced in the play are real people. All of my characters are composites. Having grown up in the South, these characters felt very familiar to me. My dad and grandfather restored antique cars. We went to car shows and stock car races out on old dirt tracks when I was a kid. Both of them had a very defiant spirit and were skeptical of the government. That sentiment was a big part of what motivated many of these men to run moonshine; they didn’t believe the government should tax or regulate alcohol.
How much research was involved? To whom did you speak? What sources did you consult?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I love doing research. I read everything I could find about the early days of NASCAR, as well as the wonderful book, “Driving with the Devil.” I also made two trips down to the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. During the first trip I had a chance to talk to some of the old timers who hang out at the museum. They invited me back to the “Moonshiner’s Reunion,” where I had a chance to talk to some of the older moonshiners, as well as a revenuer.
You’re an Alabama native. What’s your connection to cars and racing?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I spent almost every weekend at antique car shows with my dad and grandfather. I remember going to races when I was really little. Before the race started they would throw pennies on the track and the kids would pick up as many as possible. In the ’70s, my mom drove the opening lap at the Talladega Speedway in a 1938 Rolls Royce. Cars were a defining part of my childhood.
How has the play grown since it was read in the Southern Writers’ Project in 2014? What are some major discoveries you found along the way?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: We originally workshopped the play in 2014. It’s a complicated story, so I worked hard to make sure that it was clear to the audience. I didn’t want too much jargon, but I wanted it to feel authentic and historically accurate. I also worked hard to keep Avery, the protagonist, active. In the earlier draft, he felt a bit too passive.
There’s a repeated thread of a true sense of American enterprise — an entrepreneurial quality — to the people in the play. They aspire. Was this a conscious, preoccupying thought, or did it sort of emerge?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: One thing that struck me when I was researching the play was that these men who came from nothing found a way to survive. They didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. I respect that. Most of them were not educated. They came from poor backgrounds with little resources, and yet they worked hard to be self-supporting. It might not have always been legal, but they still worked hard.
How important is “theme” to you when you’re writing, or is that something that surfaces after plot and character and event?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I try not to think too much about theme before I start writing. I’ve found that — at least for me as a writer — if I am too calculating then it stifles the story. That’s the same reason why I don’t write for specific actors. I start to worry too much about staying on task, rather than just telling the story.
You pepper the script with names like Red Vogt, Roy Hall, Lloyd Seay and other race car drivers and promoters. Are these real people? Would an Alabama audience know them? Even though I didn’t know them, they add a great sense of population to the play.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: All of the racers referenced in the play are real people. I don’t expect people to know them — I didn’t before I researched the play — but I wanted to use their names to not only add authenticity to the work, but to also pay homage to them.
I love it when plays offer vivid contrasts: There’s an interesting professional tension between Dixie and Avery. She’s into legit work and a settled life and he’s into less legit work toward the same goal — family, home, roots. Are they based on real people? What was the challenge of writing them?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Dixie and Avery are characters I made up. Dixie does have some of my grandmother’s spirit. My grandmother earned her Master’s in Engineering during World War II, a major accomplishment for a woman at the time. She has an impeccable work ethic and a high moral standard. There were all of these women who worked during the war and got a taste of financial independence, who were then told to go back home and have babies once all of the men returned. Dixie is a woman who has lost her dad and her brothers and doesn’t want to be dependent on a man. I think that’s a big part of her struggle in the play; she really loves this guy, but she doesn’t want to feel dependent on him.
The language feels effortless, lived-in, easy and deeply Southern For example: “If you’re going to go off making accusations you best be getting them right” and “People are gonna start to talk you keep hanging around all the time.” Those of us who aren’t native Southern tend to overwrite colloquial speech when writing Southern-set plays. You underwrite to greater effect. Is this second nature to you? Do you draw on the dialect and speech patterns of your family, your late relatives, your neighbors?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I’ve always loved the language of the South. I remember sitting at the feet of my great-grandmother during “Happy Hour” (which was celebrated with bourbon and peanuts faithfully at 5 PM every day) listening to her, my grandmother and her sisters, tell stories. It was at her feet that I became a writer. I remember realizing at a very early age that there were social and class differences in the ways people spoke — even within my own family. People outside the South tend to think of the Southern dialect as being one generic sound, but there are so many variations that depend on geography, class, education and race.
I recall you once told me that you attended ASF plays when you were a kid.
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. My mom and I would drive to Montgomery during Rep Season and see four plays in one weekend. It was a huge part of my childhood. When I was 15 I was cast as a Lost Boy in their production of Peter Pan. My grandmother moved to Montgomery for three months so I could do the show. It was completely impractical, but I’m grateful my mom took the risk. It was a life-changing experience. I came back to ASF to participate in their first Young Southern Writers’ Project. I’ve grown up here.
What was your first exposure to plays?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: My mother took me to see A Chorus Line when I was eight years old. I remember being drawn to the sense of family and community. I asked her to enroll me in acting classes at our local theatre afterward. I grew up doing theatre. I moved to New York when I was 16. And then in another life-changing experience, I heard Wendy Wasserstein speak at an event for Young Playwrights at The Public. I had just seen Madeleine George‘s play The Most Massive Woman Wins and I thought, “I want to do that.” I knew I wanted to work in the theatre, but I think I also knew I wasn’t really an actor. I accosted Wendy and she told me to go home and write a play. So I did.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder: Currently, I’m teaching at Sewanee: The University of the South. I just finished a play called Everything That’s Beautiful. It was recently workshopped at the New Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. I am currently researching a new play that terrifies me a little bit, and I’m working on my first play for young audiences.
Gee’s Bend, which was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and published by Samuel French, was the recipient of the Osborn Award given by the American Theatre Critics Association and has been produced at ASF, Denver Center, Cleveland Play House, Kansas City Rep, Northlight Theatre, the Arden and Hartford Stage, among others. She recently completed a short play commission for Baltimore Center Stage as part of their My America, Too project. Her play, Provenance, premiered at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento in 2014 after being workshopped at the Southern Writers’ Project. The Bone Orchard was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre and workshopped at the Perry Mansfield New Works Festival. Her play Fresh Kills premiered at the Royal Court in London and was directed by Tony nominee Wilson Milam. Other plays include The First Day of Hunting Season (Ensemble Studio Theatre) and The Spirit of Ecstasy. New plays include A Requiem for August Moon, Everything That’s Beautiful and Things I Know Are True. As playwright-in-residence at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (2008-2009), Wilder developed the curriculum for Playwright in the Classroom, a program aimed at inspiring more high school students to write plays. During that time she toured rural and inner city high schools teaching playwriting. She has adapted her curriculum, aimed at improving reading comprehension and conflict resolution, to serve under-performing elementary students.
Wilder is a graduate of the dramatic writing program at New York University, where she was a Tisch Dramatic Writing Fellow (2002-2004). She is a proud alumnus of Youngblood at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. Other honors include: MacDowell Colony Residency (2000), Flea Theatre Playwriting Scholarship (with Jose Rivera, 2001), Prism Screenwriting Award (2003), Generation NEXT Playwriting Fellowship (2001), Dakin Playwriting Fellowship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (2002).