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Southern Comfort

Folksy favorites keep whistling 'Dixie' while Horizon Theatre nurtures contemporary perspectives on the New South

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The New South challenges the Old in the first five minutes of Negro Dance Lesson, a new play at Horizon Theatre.

Georgette Harper (Nevaina Rhodes), an au courant Savannah socialite nicknamed "The Black Martha Stewart," bristles at the behavior of her addle-minded housekeeper Netty (Donna Biscoe). Netty so embraces the stereotype of the black "domestic," wearing an antique maid's uniform and using phrases like "Yessum," that she might as well be called "Mammy."

When Netty declares, "Dr. Harper gone sure 'nough do well for hisself today!" Georgette becomes livid and demands, "Are you a slave, Netty? Are you a slave living in the antebellum South?" To which Netty responds, "Sometimes, I just don't know ..."

In Regina Porter's play, the Harper household becomes an arena for clashing African-American archetypes, some true-to-life, others deliberately cliched. Negro Dance Lesson is having its world premiere as part of Horizon Theatre's New South for the New Century Festival, which develops works that define contemporary Southern identity and challenge obsolete characterizations.

That's the exact opposite of what many popular Southern plays do, especially in Atlanta, and especially in the summer. This time of year, Dixie-themed theater rings in the old, reviving oft-produced works that celebrate the most countrified aspects of the South.

Onstage Atlanta inaugurates its new performing space with Blue Plate Special: Della's Diner IV, the most frequently staged "episode" of the musical soap opera set in small-town Tennessee. Theatrical Outfit resurrects Cotton Patch Gospel, a reinterpretation of the Christ story set in the rural South, which actor and co-writer Tom Key has performed in various forms more than a thousand times. Stone Mountain's ART Station will present Driving Miss Daisy, which the Alliance Theatre ran for nearly two years between 1988 and 1990.

"It's like a summer festival of Southern mainstays," says Palmer Wells, producing director of Theatre in the Square. For the ninth time in 12 years, the Marietta playhouse is staging its runaway hit gospel music comedy Smoke on the Mountain.

Such Southern scripts span a spectrum from gentle insight to cornpone caricature, but they frequently offer the dramatic equivalent of light comfort food, like a huckleberry cobbler cooling on the windowsill. Even at their best, the "Southern Comfort" plays suggest a homogenized view of the South, a kind of perpetual Mayberry centered around the Piggly Wiggly, the beauty parlor and the fishin' hole. In contrast, just as the people of the South are too diverse for sweeping generalizations, the plays of the New South for the New Century festival convey the complexities and contradictions of contemporary life in the region.

Lisa Adler, co-artistic producing director of Horizon Theatre, has no philosophical objection to work like Smoke on the Mountain but points out, "We're trying not to do that. We want to offer a balance to plays like that. Because we're not living Smoke on the Mountain today. It depicts an idealized time, and it's in the past. We're trying to find and develop plays about who we are today in the New South."

Negro Dance Lesson uses the upper-class African-American Harper family as a means of engaging issues of class, race, homosexuality and identity. It couldn't seem more different from Smoke on the Mountain, which features the Sanctified Sanders Family Singers who testify and perform more than two dozen bluegrass hymns at a small North Carolina Baptist church during the Great Depression. But where Smoke on the Mountain demonstrates how to maintain credibility while staging a Southern nostalgia act, the plays in the New South festival strive for up-to-the-minute relevance.

Before the old-timey tunes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a music industry phenomenon, Smoke on the Mountain, conceived by Alan Bailey and written by Constance Ray, was a hit show, first playing Off-Broadway at the Lambs Theatre in 1990. Smoke and O Brother each take place during the Depression and draw on traditional gospel hymns and bluegrass standards. They even have the songs "I'll Fly Away" and "Angel Band" in common.

But O Brother also brims with cliches worthy of "The Beverly Hillbillies" or Snuffy Smith cartoons, as characters with names like Pete Hogwallop guzzle moonshine from jugs marked with XXX and otherwise behave like redneck rubes.

At first glance, Smoke on the Mountain seems perilously similar. As the Sanders family descends on the "first-ever Saturday night sing" at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, the stage seems populated by stock characters: the hapless Rev. Oglethorpe, ex-con Uncle Stanley, dewy Denise, her dim twin brother Dennis, and the strict, Bible-quoting matriarch Vera.

But while the play features eye-rolling shtick about trouble at the Mt. Pleasant pickle plant, each of the play's characters gets time in the spotlight to reveal dignity beneath their drawls. Michael Beecham, who directs this summer's Smoke and has helmed four other productions of the play, says the characters inspire instant recognition. "I'm certainly not a product of the '30s and '40s, but I grew up in the Baptist church and I knew every one of these people."

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