Funny-side up

Saturday January 27, 07
by David Cuthbert,

Funny-side up
Jokey, yolky playwright Phyllis Clemons stuts her stuff at Anthony Beans
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Playwright Phyllis M. Clemons has the most original, quirky sense of humor of almost any writer I know.

Just the other day -- because in her new play a character crashes a car into an abandoned Chicken Mart -- we got on the subject of chickens.

"I feel sorry for chickens," she said. "Think what those chickens go through. Poor chickens -- they don't stand a chance," she said. "We steal their eggs -- their babies -- and cook them for breakfast. If they somehow manage to survive childhood, we chop off their heads, pluck them, fry them up and serve them on a plate."

She paused. "But I eat them. In my head, I'm a vegetarian; in my kitchen, I'm not."

Clemons is one of the few playwrights in New Orleans whose works are sought out -- even commissioned -- by independent producers, the Tennessee Williams New Orleans/Literary Festival and most recently by the Anthony Bean Community Theater.

"Our season is a calendar year season," Bean said, "and for the past two years, we have opened with plays by Phyllis" -- "Housewarming" last year and now "The Papaya Man." Bean tells Clemons what he's looking for -- last year a play to involve as many "Dashiki divas" (actresses who performed with the fabled Dashiki Theatre) as possible and this year, a romantic comedy.

Bean had a particular actress in mind for the lead, a starchy businesswoman who manages a temporary employment agency. When that actress moved out of town, he turned to Marie Slade Weatherspoon, a Dashiki alumna who had appeared in "Housewarming."

"She has a comic streak all her own," Bean said. "She's a hoot, and she's working out fine."

The particulars of the play he left up to Clemons.

"She's home-grown," he said, "she knows New Orleans, its people and our lingo, and she has true wit. She's so serious, yet she has a way of putting things that gets you laughing. And she has no political or social message."

"I'm never trying to make a statement," she agreed. "I'm just telling a story. It's entertainment. But sometimes a statement emerges and if the audience finds something more in the play, well, fine."

One interesting thing about "The Papaya Man" is that it's set on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. The Top Temps employment agency is run by Mr. Cohen, who must be the last businessman left on what he still calls Dryades Street, once a thriving Jewish and African-American shopping district. Clemons topically reflects the new interest in the area by having two brothers open a restaurant on the thoroughfare.

"I think that idea must have come from my going to see an art exhibit at the Ashe Cultural Center," she said, "and somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I wanted to call attention to what's happening there."

Her leading character, the Top Temps office manager with the poetic name of Sonnet, "is a strong woman who can handle her business." Her staff consists of a hot-to-trot cutie, a devout religious woman and a snippy young man "who is definitely in touch with his feminine side." The characters do not spring from real life, "but some of their lines I have heard in the office where I work," Clemons said. "There was one man who called women 'papayas' and that's as much as I'm going to tell you about that." She is an accountant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Clemons is not the type of playwright who's at every rehearsal guarding her baby.

"I learned that with 'The Siege on Duncan Street,' my first play with Dashiki," she said. "I got the distinct impression that they didn't want the writer at every rehearsal, which was fine with me.

"Because you write things and the way they appear in your head are not necessarily the way they appear onstage. It's another thing entirely. I like to see what the director and actors bring to my writing, because usually it's wonderful. Even though I've written it, it's like I'm seeing it for the first time."

"And it's great for us to have a writer-in-residence," Bean said, adding, "as long as she delivers. Sometimes getting a play out of Phyllis is like pulling teeth."

" Well, when I do deliver it, it takes Mr. Anthony four months to read it!" Clemons responded.

But her work is getting noticed.

David Kaplan, who has begun a Tennessee Williams Festival in Provincetown, Mass., and has attended our festival numerous times, said he heard from many people about a wonderful, one-act play done here about servants preparing food for Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" character Big Daddy's funeral. It was Clemons' "Relative Madness," and after reading it, Kaplan asked her to expand it into a full-length play, which she is doing.

"I'm hoping that it might work into our 2008 season, when there will be an emphasis on positive images in Williams' work and other people's work inspired by Williams," he said.

The play was prompted by an inspired statement Clemons made after reading several of Williams' works.

"I wonder," she said, "what the servants of all those crazy people thought about them?"