With his writing and frequent performing partner Larry Larson, Eddie Levi Lee founded the Southern Theatre Conspiracy and took a chainsaw to the genteel notions of Atlanta theater in the 1980s. Having lived in Seattle for the past 16 years, Lee returns to his hometown to play the central role of a cheerful but clueless middle-aged bigot forced to attend diversity training in Charm School. Co-writer Larry Larson recently replaced an actor in Horizon Theatre's cast of Charm School, opening May 25.
I'm so used to seeing or interviewing you two together, I feel like we're going being Larry's back by talking without him.
I think that's good. Let's blow the lid off this whole thing.
When you and Larry wrote Charm School, did you start with the issue of racism, or the premise of the Georgia good ol' boy forced to attend a diversity seminar?
Larry and I were commissioned to write a play for Emory University on "Race and Money," and we hit on this idea. Why ask two old white guys to write a play about race – are we going to write about Harriet Tubman? We can only write about the white point of view. In the first version of the play, there was a lot more of the actual diversity training, but it wasn't that interesting – it had statistics and things like that.
Although you now live in Seattle, you grew up in Atlanta. Did you ever know anyone like your character, Raymond?
I hope not. He's based on a man I directed in a show up in Appalachia. He was the sweetest, most generous, wonderful Christian man, but before the show one night he told these racist jokes, some of which have ended up in Charm School. He was about 74 years old and from the generation before integration, and you would never think he was a racist. We wanted to write a character who was a lovable person with no faults, except this racism. It's easy to write a racist as a drooling white supremacist.
Is it difficult to play the role?
It is hard because, excepting the racism, I'm not that good a person. I'm not that disingenuous. Marlon Brando once said, and I think he was quoting someone else, "You can't play a person bigger than you are." It's hard to play an innocent person. One of my flaws as a playwright, which may not be a flaw if I were writing for television, is that I can be very clever. But Raymond's not that clever. We had to take some of his lines out, or give them to another character. Raymond's not stupid, but he doesn't make intellectual bon mots. Growing up, I knew a lot of Southern men who like being the center of attention and assume they're great storytellers, but Raymond's not like that.
Has the play changed much since Essential Theatre staged its world premiere here in January of 2006?
We're always changing it. If Larry and I are part of the process in one of our plays – even if it's one we've already published – we're still tinkering with it. I think we learn more about the couple, Rob and Donna, who perform the diversity training skits and have an interracial marriage. It's no secret that they're based on (Atlanta actors) Rob Cleveland and Mary Lynn Owen. We even got permission to use an event from their life. This has been a long and intense process, but that doesn't mean it's not a funny play.
The seminar in Charm School features a sketch in which a frustrated computer-user takes a chainsaw to his computer. Chainsaws have turned up in other play you've written with Larry, so I was wondering if they were your signature.
I wrote that sketch about my experience trying to get tech support from NetZero. Is it racist to demand that you get help from someone who can speak English? Somewhat to my detriment, there's a quote I said that follows me around: "There's not a play in the world that could not be improved with the addition of a fog machine, a strobe light or a chainsaw." Sometimes I try to live up to that. I've also had the three things quoted back to me as "fog machine, chain saw and full frontal nudity," but that's not what I said.
Is there anything you particularly miss about Atlanta, that you always do when you're here?
I still like hanging out at Manuel's, which I did a lot when I was here. I went the other night, but I didn't recognize anyone there, although my picture's still on the wall. I started doing theater here with Frank Wittow in 1961. My whole life when I was there was theater and theater people, and most of the theater people I knew are gone now. I feel like the old fogey now. Atlanta's full of young people doing young work, but I haven't seen anything at Dad's Garage or PushPush.