Southern Ghosts Rise in “The Attapulgus Elegies”

 

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The room is pitch black. The audience falls silent as a figure shuffles onto the stage. As the lights slowly come up, they shine on an old woman wearing ragged pajamas standing in the middle of a worn blue kitchen. She lets out a groan.

“Thirty days my ass!” she says, holding an eviction notice.

Her name is Eller Freeman and the year is 1994. She looks at the yellow bracelet around her wrist that says all anyone thinks they need to know about her. Sex: Female. Birth: Aug. 24, 1929. Meds: Twice a day with food. Diabetic. “But people ain’t the things you know,” she says, “people are the things you don’t know.”

With an increasing case of dementia and 30 days left at home, she’s just one of the eight characters that inhabit this semi-fictional town in Appalachia. The play, titled Terminus, made its debut at the Vortex Theater earlier in January and will run one more time, on Feb. 6. It is the second in a projected seven-piece collection called The Attapulgus Elegies, written by Gabriel Jason Dean, MFA ’12. The series chronicles the 24-year decay of the Southern world Dean has created, drawing from his years growing up in Chatsworth, Georgia.

“Really, this whole collection is based on my relationship as a person who grew up in the South feeling very alien in my surroundings, negotiating the culture I inherited,” he says.

Dean started writing Terminus nearly 13 years ago. The play takes place over the course of three days inside Eller’s childhood home, where she lives with her biracial grandson, Jaybo. Her old-school Southern mentality and penchant for twisting details drive her as she comes to terms with literal ghosts of her past.

The Brooklyn-based playwright, whose influences are derived mostly from people he’s known, says Eller’s character is strongly based on his own late maternal grandmother, Rosella. Like Eller, she struggled with dementia and backward sentiments leftover from her childhood. Other similarities include having been adopted off the street; her nickname for Jesus, “Paul”; and the compelling way she’d tell a story, though Dean says “she was prone to flights of fancy.”

“[A] majority of the stuff is true with the exception of the ending,” he says, though he doesn’t want to give too much away. “Just know that my grandmother was not a criminal.”

Through each of the series’ plays, Dean plans to address what he says has “unfortunately become a stereotype” of what small towns in rural areas are like. He writes about the working-class lifestyle, the foreclosures that happen too often, the deeply ingrained discrimination, and the rampant crystal-meth use. In the first installment of the series, Qualities of Starlight, which premiered at the Vortex in 2013, Dean uses humor to depict a cosmologist and his wife’s return to Attapulgus, where he finds his aging parents addicted to meth.

Performance as Public Practice PhD student Rudy Ramirez, who directed both Qualities of Starlight and Terminus, says he was drawn to the series because it looks at difficult issues facing the country right now, but in the most intimate way possible.

“It’s about how the people who are closest to us may have beautiful things about them but they also have really ugly histories that still live in them and live in us,” he says.

Although Dean doesn’t have the next five plays ready to present just yet, he and Ramirez hope to bring the next installment to the Vortex. For now, the duo is working on a play called Something Quiet, about a lesbian couple’s relationship after the legalization of gay marriage.

When the room falls dark again and the actors disappear from the stage, the audience sits in total silence, mesmerized. Then, after a beat, the 50 or so people in attendance rise from their seats and begin to clap. Dean isn’t in attendance, but it’s not the first standing ovation the play has received.

“One of the best parts of my career was sitting at the Vortex recently, seeing the spell of that play really work on an audience and watching the actors just blossom into those characters I held in my head for 13 years,” Dean says. “I have to say, this is a pretty great time right now.”

Photo courtesy of the Vortex

 

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