"How to Say What You Know" — Kimberly Belflower and the language of Young Women

As a little girl, Kimberly Belflower brought her copy of Matilda everywhere; now, she even has a tattoo of the wunderkind herself. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that she grew up to write plays, many of which are in conversation with other works of literature and all of which center young women—“girls and books,” as Belflower puts it.

Belflower, like her fictional hero, has always been a voracious reader. Growing up in a small town in Appalachian Georgia, literature offered a window into another world. In middle school, Belflower discovered that “if I have a book in my bag at all times, I can check out of anything that’s going on around me and be safe in that.” Around the same time, Belflower started acting in school plays. But it wasn’t until a post-college stint in New York City that she realized there was a way to combine her love of reading with her love of theatre. “I remember going to see a Stephen Karam play at Roundabout with my best friend and on the train back, I was like, ‘I think I want to be a playwright.’ And he said, ‘duh.’ I think everyone kind of knew before I knew.”

Having found her calling, Belflower received her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, and then returned to Georgia to write and teach. Belflower knows that the South, with its long history of prejudices around race and gender, can be a “tricky” region to write about. At the same time, she is deeply committed to putting it on stage: “I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes at where I’m from,” she explains, “and now I’ve come to feel very, very tender towards it.” Almost all of her plays are set in rural Georgia—one early work, The Use of Wildflowers, is about a real-life “pottery dynasty” that formed in Belflower’s town in the 1940s. She is fascinated by local history and folklore; she is equally passionate about showing audiences that the contemporary rural South is a dynamic, worldly place.

If this regional specificity is one of Belflower’s trademarks, her lifelong love of literature leaves an even bigger stamp on her work. Many of her plays are written in response to classic texts: John Proctor is the Villain works through Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, while Lost Girl, which premiered at Milwaukee Rep in 2018, reimagines Peter Pan with Wendy at the center. And having written fanfiction as a teenager, Belflower understands that great writing can come from less canonical sources, too. Though the internet was not a major part of her adolescence, she wishes it had been: “it would have totally changed my life and given me a lot more confidence. I would have known I wanted to be a writer sooner.” Accordingly, Belflower’s work often treats the internet as literature—Teen Girl FANtasies, a collaboration with playwright Megan Tabaque, is about a group of best friends who meet on a fan site for their favorite band. Belflower’s 2017 play Gondal, drawing on both Wuthering Heights and the internet phenomenon known as Slender Man, pairs a Gothic classic with an even spookier contemporary counterpart.

Though she makes use of both print and digital inspirations, Belflower’s plays are always rooted in her own experiences. She has what she describes as an “emotional photographic memory. I forget facts and dates and numbers, but I can remember what shirt I was wearing during certain emotionally charged moments in my life.” She recalls the subtleties of small-town life, of friend groups, and the frustration of first heartbreaks with surprising detail. And though she now has some distance from these experiences, she continues to identify with them: “I’m coming of age all the time.”

To Belflower, when you’re a high school girl, “you know things, but you have to figure out how to say what you know.” That “figuring out” is exactly what Belflower puts onstage—girls with their books, using other people’s language to come into their own.

Francesca Sabel