Southern Women Playwrights: New Essays in Literary History and Criticism

By Robert L. McDonald; Linda Rohrer Paige | Go to book overview

11
Dialectic and the Drama of Naomi Wallace

Claudia Barnett

“I love coming back here. It's where I get all my stories,” Naomi Wallace said recently at her father's farm outside Louisville, Kentucky (qtd. in Egerton 14). With her Southern roots firmly established by birth and upbringing, Wallace is known, nonetheless, not as a Southern playwright, but as a London playwright. Four of her plays were successfully staged in England before she finally attracted attention in the United States, winning the 1996 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the 1996 Kesserling Prize, and the 1997 Obie Award for Best Play for One Flea Spare—which had moved from London to Louisville to New York. In 1998, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek was her first play to premiere at home, at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Vivian Gornick, who featured the playwright in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine, has labeled her “an American exile in America” (27)—the perfect epithet because of its inherent contradiction, so characteristic of the playwright. Wallace's success in London is attributed to her political style—ironically the product of the rural South where her plays are rarely produced. Her dialectical consciousness developed in her youth; the family differed from their neighbors in terms of politics, education, and, as Wallace puts it, “Class.…It's all a matter of class.…We live in a culture where social forces are so present. They make us what we are” (qtd. in Gornick 28, 31). The product of liberal parents in a conservative society, of a comfortable upbringing among the poor, Wallace embodies contradiction in her life and her work.

Wallace may get her ideas from Kentucky, but she never sets her plays there. One drama takes place in London, another in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, another at “a place that could be the Mexico/Texas border.”1 “Slaughter City, U.S.A.” and “somewhere in the United States” are the oblique settings for the two plays that grew directly out of Louisville. Slaughter City is modeled after the local Fischer Meat Packing Company. And a childhood friend, Mark Landrum, who as a teenager would “walk onto the narrow trestle east of Jeffersontown and race

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