OXFORD, MISS. -- If you sense that you've been reading more about Mississippi than usual this summer, you're right.
In the widely reported gubernatorial campaign, there has been a Republican primary -- only the second such this century. Last year, Mike Espy became the first black Mississippian elected to the House of Representatives since Reconstruction.
At next month's Miss America saturnalia in Atlantic City, N.J., the crown of Miss Mississippi (sound like a song title?) will be worn by 22-year-old Toni Seawright, who happens to be black.
Stamp collectors are posting orders for the William Faulkner 22-cent stamp of the Literary Arts series with the Oxford postmaster. And on the mellowed green campus of Ole Miss -- the University of Mississippi -- there's been a new play festival with a difference. Instead of a batch of judges toting up scores, three playwrights have been able to see how their works "play" before audiences. Too many such competitions don't offer this desirable reward.
The Ole Miss theater staff felt this was right for literary Oxford. Here is the Faulkner family home, and the town library displays the Nobel Prize for literature that he won in 1949, a showpiece in this town of roughly 10,000.
Oxford also was home to theater critic Stark Young, who wrote a Civil War novel that gave Bette Davis one of her major roles, "So Red the Rose."
Mississippians are proud of their native writers, such as Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers and Beth Henley. Mayor John Leslie boasts that a half dozen residents pay their bills as fiction writers and that a goodly portion of Ole Miss professors "publish."
So the theater department's festival is a natural for this state, an outgrowth of the university's 20-year-old summer theater series. The third annual competition to find "the best full-length play about the South or by a southerner" attracted 140 entries from all over, many by professional writers in other fields. This year all three happen to be by southern writers and about the South.
A $2,000 first prize and a major production went to 24-year-old Denise Dillard for "Blue Collar Blues." The department also offered illuminating if less elaborate productions of "So Tender a Bond," by Patricia Boatner, a veteran journalist and one-act play winner, and "Matchless," by Kenn Robbins, a novelist whose "Buttermilk Bottoms" has just been published and who is chairman of the University of South Dakota theater department.
As one of five critics invited to comment on the plays and one whose committee work involves reading many scripts yearly, what impressed me was that all three playwrights understand the importance of dialogue. Almost never do they embark on those paragraph-long speeches that pour from writers who mistake playwriting to be like other forms of writing.
Sometimes I find speeches that go on and on in the manner of classical French drama, of which Sarah Bernhardt once noted, "I rush through those endless words to the extent of unintelligibility but I clearly accent the key words so that the meaning is unmistakable. It's the only way."
Times do change and it's clear that Dillard, Boatner and Robbins have been listening.
Can it be that "Blue Collar Blues" was chosen first because its theme is the disappearance of the once-solid small towns in the wake of local unemployment? I learned that the late Preston Jones' "Texas Trilogy" plays are much performed and admired in the South because the bypassing of small towns was his overall -- and prophetic -- theme.
In any events, Dillard's beauty parlor reflects this disintegration through the closing of a sewing machine factory in a small Arkansas town. On one side of the stage is the booth of the local disc jockey, who knows his townfolks' tastes, and on the other a bar to which the few men in the cast of 16 retreat, to bicker and commiserate.
Dillard's novel approach to this three-setting device is to have the characters exchange pertinent comments, between the wall, so to speak. My colleagues welcomed the breakthrough of this implied realism, but I found it more artificial than effective. The first act is largely exposition to accompany the realistic beauty parlor rituals and I would have welcomed an earlier indication of the second half's action. However, Dillard's dialogue is crisp and effective and the two acts "played" far better than I had expected from my prior reading.
"So Tender a Bond" is in the William Inge family vein, I think, but with finely observed contemporary thoughts. Heroine Peg has returned to the small-town home her brother shares with their widowed mother. Peg has been making good in New York as a fashion designer, and she's retreated to Mississippi to recover from a leg injury, a fight with her boss and a spat with her husband.
The interaction of the characters is splendidly plausible and generally avoids cliche's. Peg's problem is that she always has been ashamed of her background (her family has never met her successful spouse) and and it takes her wise husband to set her straight. A deus ex machina finally accomplishes what I believe Boatner could achieve through other means, but, again, the dialogue is very well done.
Because I am prejudiced in favor of historical plays peppered with what-might-have-beens, I relished "Matchless." Kenn Robbins' story is rooted in a question that often must hit visitors to Savannah, Ga. Why didn't William Tecumseh Sherman continue those fires he set from Atlanta almost to the sea?
Robbins imagines Crystol, a spirited, individualistic young lady who discomfits her father and friends by sending a letter to Sherman, whose march through Georgia has frightened all, inviting him to their home for Christmas dinner. The general is happily piqued by this novel, indeed unique, invitation and arrives with a peacock's proud anticipation.
Crystol has made thorough preparations. Being practical, she has recognized that setting fires takes matches and, aided by her Dorcas society friends, she has pretty much cornered the match market of Savannah and vicinity. Through wiles worthy of Scarlett O'Hara and manners worthy of Rhett Butler, the city is preserved. It's an amusing, mocking conceit, but, after all, G.B. Shaw and R.E. Sherwood have had comparable fun rethinking history.
Thus, Robbins' fancy fed my prejudice and his confrontation scene is a witty character battle. To prepare for this relatively longish meeting, he gives many flashes of surrounding events in the concentrated two-minute style, melding the traditional sustained scene with the currently popular pointillist effects. While requiring many quick scene shifts and doubling to suggest some 25 characters, it was an amusing notion. My summation ignores more tragic episodes through which Robbins balances the situation.
The productions were modest but professional. The summer had begun with one musical, "My One and Only," and would end, after the three new plays, with another musical, "On Your Toes." This meant that the imported non-Equity professionals would have to be proficient in song, dance, speech and acting, no small order.
Department directors Scott McCoy, James Shollenberger and Helen Kellum made some solid choices for major roles. Charlotte Hammett, the lead in both "Blues" and "Bond," is a skilled, experienced actress. Victor Lazarow, who had major parts in all three, show strong versatility and was most effective as Sherman. An amateur actress now branching out to learn a living in the craft, Nancy Resnick may prosper, since she has a keen sense of timing that can be improved with tempered restraint.
A participant in the American College Theater Festivals, Ole Miss here expands on Michael Kanin's ACTF "original play program," opening out to writers away from current classrooms. This "Festival of Summer Theater" is a valuable experience for playwrights, an adventure in novelty for Oxford audiences and a reminder of the state's conspicuous literary aspirations.
Richard L. Coe is critic emeritus of The Washington Post.