Beth Henley

Beth Henley, one of the most acclaimed Southern writers living today, was born in 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter of an attorney and an actress. Her hometown presented Henley with unsolvable contradictions; it was a hub of Southern hospitality, while it simultaneously promoted racism and violence. “I was around when things were about to change, but all this violence was going on in reaction to the change,” Henley recalls. Finding her environment often perplexing, Henley was struck by an African-American sense of humor that to her stems from the South’s tumultuous history. “I think there’s something interesting about the notion that the South was defeated, and in the face of defeat, humor is often the best defense for humiliation.” In 1970, she left Jackson to attend Southern Methodist University, where she wrote her first play, the one-act Am I Blue.

In 1976, she moved to Los Angeles, the distance allowing her to critically reflect on her Southern upbringing. In 1979, she wrote Crimes of the Heart, a comedy about three sisters, one of whom has shot her husband, which won the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Great American Play Contest and subsequently the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Soon after, Henley’s next play The Miss Firecracker Contest—in which a socially outcast woman strives to improve her standing in her small Southern hometown by winning a beauty contest—premiered in Los Angeles.

In the following years, Henley began to experiment stylistically, writing what Robert Falls, director of The Jacksonian, calls her “experimental, LA plays”. She wrote the plays Abundance, with a fragmentary, episodic structure; Signature, a satiric science fiction play; and L-Play, which conveyed language-based formalism.

Her recent hit The Jacksonian, a dark, fragmented comedy which premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012, presents a synthesis of Henley’s realistic and experimental work with a sustained effort to grapple with her Southern past. The play is set in 1964 in a hotel of the same name, which has become the temporary home of dentist Bill Perch after his wife has kicked him out of their house. As Bill deteriorates over the course of the work, he faces his teenage daughter, a greedy maid, a felonious bartender, and his emotionally unstable wife. Robert Falls, director of The Jacksonian, notes that “it’s powerful, disturbing, very funny, and very much a play by Beth Henley.”

—Elizabeth Dinkova