Slow Train to Memphis

Playwright Jerre Dye comes of age.

Jonathan Postal

Coming-of-age stories are typically bittersweet things, threaded with promise and laced with magic and loss. This particular story is about a storyteller — the perpetually boyish Jerre Dye — a writer, teacher, designer, and actor, on the cusp of middle age. And it’s exactly that kind of story.

For Dye, a Mississippi native who lives in Memphis and serves as the artistic director for Voices of the South, a small, independent company dedicated to the creation of original, regionally sensitive plays, the past 12 months have been strewn with milestones of the tragic and fantastic varieties. In June 2010 Voices of the South went north for an Off Broadway opening at the Abingdon Theatre of Sister Myotis’ Bible Camp, actor/writer Steve Swift’s outrageous interactive comedy about the crossroads of church, entertainment, and politics.

The following January, Dye buried his oldest brother, the 47-year-old Touched by an Angel star John Dye.

In April, two months before his 40th birthday, Dye’s critically admired play Cicada, a flickering, candlelit story of love and loss in rural Mississippi, was awarded the Bryan Family Award for dramatic literature from the Fellowship of Southern Writers during the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga. In Dye’s  award citation, Mississippi playwright Beth Henley, whose play Crimes of the Heart earned her a Pulitzer in 1981, praised his lyrical voice and distinctly Southern sensibilities, proclaiming him “a vibrant force in the American theatre.” Additionally he has become a pivotal regional artist, and the company he leads has grown into a community of Memphis-based performer-playwrights working to re-imagine how performing artists interface with their neighborhoods and their audiences.

Cicada, a dolorous ghost story wrapped in a faded childhood memory, is a turning point for Dye, who has previously devoted himself to adaptations and collaborations with other performance-oriented writers such as narrative theater specialist Gloria Baxter, solo-performer Darius Wallace, and storyteller Elaine Blanchard, each of whom has been recognized in recent months with regional and national awards and major commissions. Dye has adapted and directed Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale for the Iris Orchestra, with Michael Stern conducting. He has also devoted himself to developing smarter children’s theater like The New Adventures of Hansel and Gretel, and Sid and the Magic Box. Dye’s Southern-fried version of The Ugly Duckling toured the Mid-South and points beyond for ten years. With Cicada, a play more than a decade in the making, Dye transitions to a more personal vision and to more adult themes.

Sister Myotis creator Steve Swift says that Dye is the only director whose ear he trusts when he’s developing new material. “And here’s the thing about Jerre,” Swift says. “He has a thousand more Cicadas in him. This is just a beginning.”

Good-bye to Hollywood

There’s never been a time when Dye wasn’t writing something. Josie Helming, the retired University of Memphis theater professor, says he’s carried notebooks around for as long as she’s known him. But as a fresh-faced college graduate, staying in the South to write and struggle with a small independent theater company was the last thing on his mind. Like so many young actors, he had designs on Hollywood. Unlike most young actors he had what appeared to be an advantage, if not an actual inside track. Memphis was never a destination. It was never supposed to be anything more than a stopover on his way to the big time.

“Whatever my brother did, I had to do it too,” he says. “John was into theater so I was into theater; he ran for student council so I ran for student council; if he went to Hollywood, well then, I was going to Hollywood.’”

John Dye was genuinely inspired and motivated by his professors at the university and encouraged his baby brother to follow in his footsteps. “There is no way I can be supportive enough of this program because the program has given me so much,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Memphis Flyer, prior to a benefit performance of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Little House on the Prairie alum Melissa Gilbert. “I feel a great responsibility, a debt to the University and to the college of theater and dance in particular.”

The elder Dye’s big break came in 1984 when he was cast as Skip, a sneering preppy in Making the Grade, a class-conscious Judd Nelson vehicle filmed primarily in Memphis on the Rhodes College campus when the school was still called Southwestern at Memphis. In 1987 he starred alongside 1980s icon Morgan Fairchild in Campus Man. The young star was just beginning his nine-year run with Touched by an Angel when brother Jerre finished college.

“[John] was eight years older than me so I was still pretty young when he was starting to become successful. I remember being in junior high and reading these great stories and interviews in The Hollywood Reporter,” Dye says. “And when I graduated he said, ‘C’mon.’”

“This is not my path,” Dye now admits of the four years he spent wandering in the Los Angeles wilderness, auditioning for parts he didn’t get. “I was young and immature and not nearly cooked enough to take all that on the chin. It’s tough being in your early 20s and walking into an audition and having someone tell you you’re not this enough or that enough.”

Memphis was never a destination. It was never supposed to be anything more than a stopover on his way to the big time.

Dye’s Internet Movie Database listing is remarkably slender. He was cast as a dancer in the 1993 remake of The Beverly Hillbillies starring Jim Varney, the actor who had become famous playing Earnest P. Worrell in a popular series of Purity Dairy commercials.

“I called Josie [Helming] and I told her my story: ‘These people aren’t nice,’” he says. “They don’t understand me. I’m soooo unhappy.’ And she called my happy ass to the mat. She said, ‘Stop it. You don’t want to be there. You’ve never wanted to be there. If you decide to stay there, then suck it up. Make a choice.’

“It was the best spanking I could have possibly had,” Dye says.

Helming recalls the phone conversation: “He said he was going on two or three auditions a week. Some people don’t get that in a year. So I said, ‘If you’re not getting any work then you really don’t want to do it. You may not know it, but the camera always knows when you’re lying.”

Dye didn’t move back to Memphis right away, but more and more he began to collaborate with his former professors and friends from college, like Alice Berry and Jenny Odle Madden, who founded Voices of the South in the early 1990s to perform narrative adaptations of work by Southern writers.

The ideas for what would grow into Cicada began to take shape in 1998 on a research trip to Wyoming with his former professor Gloria Baxter, whose adaptations of work by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner had earned her an international reputation as a narrative theater pioneer. Baxter was developing a new piece called Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, based on the autobiography of the American naturalist writer Terry Tempest Williams, and Dye, who had worked with her previously on two different productions of As I Lay Dying, signed on to help.

“Two things stand out from that trip,” Baxter says, describing her former student as a major co-collaborator. “Jerre celebrated his birthday in a cabin in Yosemite. And for his birthday he wanted to read aloud the introduction to [Marcel] Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past. I still very vividly remember the little boy’s description of his mother coming upstairs, and of her smell as she kisses him, and hearing Jerre read the part about the magic lantern.”

At the time Dye was working on a story called Barges, which evolved over time into the first draft of Cicada.

“It’s the first time I remember hearing him talk about it,” Baxter says. “He started talking as we climbed to the top of a large hill. That’s when he told me the story of the mother character from Cicada, and Ace [the young boy], and Lenora [a neighbor mourning for Preacher, her husband]. He didn’t have everything worked out yet but said he was asking each of these characters a lot of questions.”
“He can just make Mississippi be there,” Baxter says of Dye’s prose.


A Remembrance of Things Past

Everybody’s born with a story. “It’s ladled on our backs. It’s like a spell,” Dye says, describing how these stories shape our lives as we try to escape them, fulfill them, or simply figure them out. “I was born premature and wasn’t supposed to live,” he says. “But I did. And that’s my story. I lived.

“I had two lazy eyes. I looked like a sturgeon,” Dye says of his one lingering defect, which was eventually corrected by surgery. “And when you have a lazy eye people don’t look at you. They aren’t being mean, they just can’t figure out where to focus. So, for the longest time, when I was growing up nobody ever looked at me.” That didn’t stop the young playwright from looking at everybody else, and so began a life of quiet observation.

“For me theater has never been about being clapped at,” Dye says, pondering the moment when he first knew he wanted to pursue a life in show business. During his first summer at home from school in Memphis, his brother John directed a production of Grease at a storefront community theater in Tupelo, Mississippi, right around the corner from Elvis’ house. “And I would go with him to rehearsals and sit in the back of the theater thinking, ‘If I just keep my mouth shut and pay attention, nobody will know I’m here and I can absorb it all.’”

“As a kid I would watch my grandmother play solitaire. And she’d play over and over again,” Dye continues. “She suffered greatly from depression and I remember thinking that the sound the cards made was the loneliest sound I’d ever heard. That image became the inspiration for Cicada.”

Dye describes himself as “a picture guy.” Every story starts with an image, he says. He also uses visual elements to inspire his collaborating artists.

Before he took Sister Myotis’ Bible Camp to New York, Steve Swift’s outspoken church lady had already become a YouTube sensation thanks to a hilarious routine about “good Christian panties with a Godly cotton panel.” But Sister might never have mixed her first ambrosia salad had it not been for one of Dye’s clever visual cues.

“I never had any interest whatsoever in directing, or in writing,” Swift explains. But Dye is hard to say no to and when he asked Swift to create an original character for Pre-sent Pres-ent, an annual variety show hosted by Voices of the South, the actor agreed to try.

“Jerre gave me a gift,” Swift says. “It was a vial of glitter, a crown of thorns, and a little slip of paper that said, ‘I give and I give and I give.’ That was it. I saw the character right away.”

Cicada, with its Proustian tone, was heavily inspired by images of Dye’s early childhood in Amory, a quirky railroad town built so trains on the Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad would have somewhere to stop halfway between Memphis and Birmingham. “I remember the ‘blacks only’ water fountains you could still see on the street when I was little,” Dye says. “They were these odd derelict monuments. Sad remnants of a time that had passed mixed with the vibrating reality of the present day.”

It was in Amory where Dye’s own sense of Southern-ness was underscored by a grandmother whom he describes as an “outsider.”
“She was always ‘that woman from Missouri,’” he says. “I would see black-eyed peas on my friends’ dinner tables but you’d never see that at my grandmother’s house, because where she came from. black-eyed peas are what you fed the cows.

“As a kid I would watch my grandmother play solitaire. And she’d play over and over again,” Dye continues. “She suffered greatly from depression and I remember thinking that the sound the cards made was the loneliest sound I’d ever heard. That image became the inspiration for Cicada.”

A Summons to Memphis

A quick exercise: Name your five favorite  Southern playwrights. Most people will bog down after Tennessee Williams, the flamboyant Streetcar Named Desire scribe who first encountered the works of Anton Chekhov at the Rhodes College library. Some may also remember Lillian Hellman, who was born in New Orleans, and Atlanta’s Alfred Uhry of Driving Miss Daisy fame. But, given the mystique of the Southern writer, the tradition isn’t nearly as strong as one might think. Dye sees new urban trends as an opportunity to change an audience’s perception that good plays necessarily come from somewhere else.

“It starts with changing how we relate to theaters,” Dye says. “We think of them as a place where we walk in, sit down with our hands in our lap, clap when the show’s over, and leave. But a sea change is happening with people re-investing in community. Re-investing in authenticity and local businesses. Now people want to be more intimate with story content. And we have to ask what makes content relevant to living in Memphis or to people living in the South.

“My mantra for Voices of the South this year is to host play reading after play reading,” Dye says. “A lot of it will be pay-what-you-can. The goal is to create a place where people who live here come and listen to stories written by people who are from here.” M

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