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There's More Than One Southern Accent

Date: Apr 22, 2013


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By Mark Blankenship
The Broadway production of Breakfast at Tiffany's closed yesterday, but you can still see a play it made possible.
That's because Elisabeth Gray, who was a Tiffany's understudy, used her paycheck to finance the New York run of Southern Discomfort, her solo show about Southerners coping with small-town life. (It runs on Monday nights in the basement of the Soho Playhouse.)
Broadway cash wasn't Gray's only reason for mounting this production. "I really did need something that was all my own, so that I wasn't just standing in the wings and watching someone else's performance," she says. "When you're understudying, your responsibility is very much to not claim ownership of any of the roles [you're responsible for.] You have to say, 'This isn't my role. This isn't my performance. I'm here as a human safety net in case something goes wrong.'"
In Southern Discomfort Gray doesn't have a safety net at all: She's alone on stage, performing monologues that she wrote herself. In just over 70 minutes, she plays everyone from a male tow truck driver reflecting on a cross-country love affair to a former beauty queen who's obsessed with making her face symmetrical. Along the way, she confronts Southern attitudes about race, age, sexuality, and love.
Crucially, Gray demonstrates there's more than one way to be Southern. All of her characters are from different states, have distinct political and emotional lives, and speak with different accents.
And yes, there's more than one Southern accent. There are dozens. "I'm not sure New Yorkers even hear that," Gray says. "But Southerners do."
Gray has long understood the South's diversity: As a child, she lived in South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina, and she absorbed the culture in each state. "Everyone in this play is either someone in my family or someone I've encountered," she says. "There a richness of darkness and dysfunction."
New Yorkers may not recognize these Southern perspectives, but that's the point. "The intention here is to show the wideness of the South, to show these conflicting and diverse energies," Gray says. "I've chosen these seemingly stereotypical characters who I think exist as various blurry idiots in the minds of non-Southerners, and I want to take those stereotypes and unravel them a little."
She continues, "That's not to say that these characters are any less bigoted or conservative or Republican, but it's just to say, 'There's always more than these labels.' I've noticed that New Yorkers love to talk about how dumb red America is, and I understand not appreciating the political values of people in the South, but as [one of my characters] says, 'Have you ever been there? Try it some time. It's worth the visit.'"
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor