THEATER: Long, Blessed Summer | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

THEATER: Long, Blessed Summer

"Blessed Assurance," a play about Freedom Summer 1964, is at New Stage Theatre Jan. 29-Feb. 1 and Feb. 5-8.

When Laddy Sartin first started writing plays, he wasn't the most regimented writer around. Living in New York City with his wife Anne, he worked at the New York Shakespeare Festival during the day, and at night, while Anne was an electrician on the set of "A Chorus Line," he penned plays, haphazardly. "Table Scraps From the Promised Land" was his first one, which he wrote at the same time he was writing poetry and short fiction. But it wasn't until he and Anne had a child back in '81 that he got discipline in his life, the kind of discipline one needs to persevere in a world that rewards memo-writers with more readiness than playwrights.

In 1987, the Sartins had another child. The father then began to see his life through a more mature lens, and realized that not just a little discipline would do it. So he started working hard, for real this time. He studied the craft of playwrighting, read everything he could on the subject, learned the power of revision. In '88, he wrote "Roses for Roy Lee", which earned him an $8,000 fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council. "That bought me a year to write," Sartin says. "I was so eager."

So he thumbed through his trunk of rough drafts, plays-not-yet-pearls, and found a first version of what would become, over the next year, "Blessed Assurance." (And, incidentally, a baby version of his future hit "Catfish Moon.")

As soon as he finished the play, a director picked it up, put it on stage, and entered it in the American College Theatre Festival, where it won top prize for the state. From there, the play went on to the regional competition, which was held at Auburn University. It almost won regionals, but didn't quite. Afterward, Sartin came home, picked up some odd jobs, but didn't write.

"I find with my work that I write my heart out," he says. "I have to live my life again, get my feelings hurt, be a child again, be a sponge, and absorb the world. You have to find that thing you really have a passion about."

"Blessed Assurance," a play set in Sunflower County, Miss., in 1964, is not a play without passion. It opens with Olivia, the black cook for the Whitehouse Café, having gone to the courthouse to register to vote. She is attacked by those who love her and, of course, those who don't. Included among the former group is café owner Harlan, who doesn't understand how her motivations outweigh possible fatal consequences. Finally, Olivia tests Harlan's allegiance to her by demanding to be served on the other end of the counter behind which she has worked for many years.

Director Anne Sullivan loves the play, and feels that the lines jump off the pages of the script in a way she doesn't readily encounter. "The only other time I've had this happen," she says, "is in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' Tennessee Williams. That's how good I think this play is." The cast she's chosen proves her right. Malcolm McMillen (yes, the Hinds County Sheriff in real life) is café-owner Harlan; Alan Hays is Slick, the man you'll love to hate; Mary Tanksley-Jackson is making a heartfelt theatre debut as Olivia; Hannah Page is Harlan's daughter Sally; James Anderson is the radio announcer, and Wayne DeHart is Olivia's love interest, Lewis. DeHart, who lives in Houston, came to the play recommended by Sartin himself. "He's the best Lewis I've ever seen." For a man who's seen his play performed all around the country, that's quite a recommendation.

Sullivan suggests that given Trent Lott's recent outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, it's prime time to stage a play like this one. But, with Mississippi's reticence to talk about its past, prime time for this sort of interracial dialogue, this examination of our collective past, is every day. "We need to go and see plays on stage," Sartin says, "so we can look onstage and see ourselves."

"Blessed Assurance" is at New Stage Theatre, 1100 Carlisle Street, Jan. 29-Feb. 1 and Feb. 5-8 at 7:30 p.m. Matinees Feb. 2 & 9 at 2 p.m. Cost is $20, with student and senior discounts. Call 948-3531.

— Lori Herring

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