There are some happy reunions going on at the True Brew Theater. The place was thoroughly trashed and looted shortly after Katrina. Many of us wondered if it would ever be in business again. Well, owner Roch Eshleman has rolled up his sleeves and put True Brew back together. The box office is open. The line forms at the rear.
Furthermore, two of the shows that were running when the big wind blew are back on the boards: Southern Fried Chickie and Okra. Sounds more like a takeout menu than a couple of comedies. Let's just say they're tasty regional offerings. Southern Fried Chickie, in fact, had only one performance, on Aug. 21, before the theater was forced to close down.
Christy McBrayer wrote and performs Southern Fried Chickie. She's a vivacious blonde who has a winning way of connecting with her audience. The show, like Greater Tuna, evokes a whole, oddball community with a miniscule cast. McBrayer does quick costume changes behind a screen and emerges as 14 different folk from the town of Saltillo, Miss. ("a trailer park suburb of Tupelo").
Southern Fried Chickie is more an elaborate cabaret turn than a stage play. Appropriately enough, McBrayer performs it on the small stage out in the coffee bar, with her audience sitting at tables. Off to one side of the stage are The Red Neck Greek Chorus Boys (Brad Hallenbeck and Keefe LeRoy). They play acoustic guitars, using a heavy rhythmic strum, and they sing -- mostly country-western ditties. They also back up McBrayer when she sings. They give her opportunities for little jokes and glances. In short, they keep McBrayer from being out there all alone.
Most of the characters that McBrayer portrays are friends or relatives; that is, they are friends or relatives of a person named "Christy." Christy is an invisible interlocutor whom the characters talk to. For instance, Mamaw is thrilled to greet Christy, who's returned home from her career in Los Angeles. Here, the temptations of biographical interpretation get intense, since McBrayer herself grew up in Mississippi and went to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.
The small-town Mississippi flavor flows thick and fast. Talk centers on things like Jim Bob's grocery or getting an Easter dress over at the Wal-Mart. Mamaw has a large empty can of Folger's coffee that she spits into. For some reason, she uses this same spittoon as the storage place for a present for Christy -- a crown-of-thorns hair scrunchy! "Pah-tay-ters" get mashed, "pillers" get fluffed up, and the baby's name is Tooter. McBrayer has the same sort of affectionate fun with her Mississippi clan that we, in New Orleans, have with Y'ats and their "yatter."
There are many little touches that get the audience laughing. For instance, the lady with Tooter (a doll in a stroller) comforts the cranky babe while exhaling vast clouds of cigarette smoke directly into its face. There are country maxims, including one of my favorites in which a barbecue joint got busted for health violations: "Anybody with a lick of sense knows you can't cook good barbecue and meet the health code!"
At one point, we see young Christy herself riding in the car with her father. He presents a curious mix of educational impulses. He quizzes her on her vocabulary word "tenacity." He has her recite some lines from Robert Frost. Finally, he commands her to take a swig of Jim Beam, straight from the bottle, and wash it down with a Tab chaser.
Then, we watch an ominous visit that Christy pays to her sister, Misty, who is locked up in the state penitentiary. Misty -- a tough-talking, conflicted gal -- greets Sis with, "Well, well, look who came to see the monkey in the cage!" This is sibling rivalry that borders on a girl-gang vendetta.
We even meet a female softball coach who is ridiculously broad beamed in her sweat pants. In between flurries of expletives directed at her ill-coordinated team, she turns a flirtatious eye on Christy -- noting, "We are the only two out of our class who never got married." We get the picture.
There are many more sardonic Deep South portraits in this rogues' gallery. Are we dealing with white trash? McBrayer knew you'd think that. No, she insists, they aren't white trash, they're "debris blanc"!
Perry Martin did not quite direct the show this time out, for McBrayer had already performed it in Los Angeles before bringing it here. Martin did earn a credit as production consultant, however, by helping to tighten it up.
In short, Southern Fried Chickie is not a main course, but an enjoyable and amusing little snack.
- Christy McBrayer takes on 14 different roles in her one- woman show recalling her days growing up in the Mississippi, Southern Fried Chickie, which has returned to the reopened True Brew.