You are going to hear a lot of stories.
Some are family stories -- Daddy told a thousand stories to amuse us or amaze us. Others are stories I have lived.
they form one story -- about a place, the people who give it placeness and my own coming to terms with that place and with -- well, with life.
The place is the small-town South Carolina where poet / political-newsletter publisher / trade-association writer Hastings Wyman Jr. grew up. His poems about growing up Southern have been put together as a play with music and dance, which will be staged in town this weekend and next.
"Being from the South is not exactly comparable to being from another part of the country -- it's more of an ethnic identification," mused the 42-year-old author during a break in the "exquisitely painful and very scary" experience of witnessing a rehearsal of his play. "I was at a party not too long ago and in one corner was a whole group of Irish Catholics who had all gone to parochial schools. They were all from different parts of the country and hadn't known each other before, but they all had this experience in common. Maybe that's comparable to being a Southerner. You can't grow up and ignore the fact that you grew up there. There's a whole set of different values, of people laughing at different things."
"Any Southern story worth its salt begins with the war," says the narrator, and Aunt Anna, a composite character out of Wyman's past, tells about how the Yankee soldiers "poured the rice and molasses in the dirt" and how "grandmama picked the grains from the gooey ground to feed the family." There are story-poems about how Grandaddy, a doctor, amputated a carnival gypsy's leg; about a lynching of "two colored men and one colored woman" in the Twenties; about how Aunt Anna took the laundry to "a poor washwoman's poor unpainted house" and returned with bottles and jars of illegal booze deftly tucked among the clean underwear; about Aunt Anna's funeral:
Aunt Anna would have loved to see
And who stayed home . . .
Callie gets the punch bowl.
And the furniture in the front room
Goes to Tom.
Wyman took up poetry about five years ago, when Watergate and Vietnam "took the fun out of politics." A former legislative assistant to South Carolina's Senator Strom Thurmond and a former Southern field man for the Republican National Committee, Wyman is still somewhat involved in politics and publishes a twice-a-month newsletter on Southern politics from his Capitol Hill home. But the experience of writing poems about his youth, he believes, helped him "come back to politics quite differently . . . Before, I was an ideologue, defending the South I had grown up in. I came back with a different set of ideas -- not rejection, because I'm emotionally committed to the place and the people. But I'm more inclined to see subtleties and uncertainties. . . It's a matter of shifting gears, of letting yourself open to the emotional side of your nature. . . Poetry changes the person writing it. It's not just from your mind, but from your feelings. It's got to be emotionally true."
Much of the evolution documented by the play involves what Wyman calls "emotional awareness of the whole race thing." One of the poems is set at a barbecue, given by the governor for third-year students at the University of South Carolina Law School, with a tour of the state prison's retired electric chair, "a lunch of pork barbecue, rice with hash, slaw and iced tea" and a bloodhound demonstration. For the bloodhound demonstration, three inmates of the Juvenile Detention Home for Colored Boys are sniffed by the dogs, then given a ten-minute head start and found by the hounds in less than ten minutes.
"We wouldn't allow ourselves to acknowledge that this wasn't okay . . . We weren't outraged," said Wyman. "We didn't allow ourselves to regard the feelings of black people in the same way as our own, and when you do that, it hurts the bigot. It freezes something in you."
By the end of the play, feelings are unfrozen and the poet reacts with emotion to a "one-eye running / one-legged black / beggar named Rooster" portrayed in dance by Stephen Johnson.
Wyman, who has lived in Washington for 15 years and feels at home in the city's blend of North and South, visits his parents in South Carolina two or three times a year. He is not sure how his family would react to the play.
"I sent home a draft of a book of poems that's coming out in May that has some of these poems in it, and my Daddy said he didn't have any problems with them -- but that may be based on the fact that there won't be a large readership in Aiken," said Wyman. "My parents have a good sense of humor, but there are some things they might find painful. Parents want their children to love everything that's their heritage . . . I've learned to love the place and not have to defend it, to love the people and not love every damned attitude. I'm not trying to preach, just to let these poems tell the story of the change in my feelings and attitudes."
SEEING SOUTHERN GOTHIC
The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop will present "Southern Gothic" THIS SATURDAY at 7, THIS SUNDAY at 4 and 7, and NEXT SATURDAY AND SUNDAY at 7. All performances will be in Christ Church, 620 G Street SE. Tax- deductible donation is $5, $2.50 for those over 60. Call 547-6839 for reservations.