Columbus to recreate Tennessee Williams’ world

Published 10:24 pm Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tennessee Williams was born 100 years ago in Columbus, and this week the town is celebrating with a birthday party.

A festival there will immerse visitors in the historical context of his works, which include “The Glass Menagerie” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Columbus is just one of many places that served as home to the great American playwright, and all of them celebrate his memory.  Festivals in honor of his birthday, March 26, will be held this month from European universities to the French Quarter of New Orleans.

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Even though Williams’ family left Columbus when he was just 3, scholars say the town had a major impact on his plays.

“As it says in ’The Glass Menagerie’ early on, this is a play of memories,” said Steve Pieschel, a professor emeritus at the Mississippi University for Women. “And so ’The Glass Menagerie’ contains memories of Amanda Wingfield’s courtship days, and if you think Amanda Wingfield is based on Tennessee Williams’ mother, then that’s Columbus.”

At the town’s centennial celebration this week, visitors can tour Williams’ childhood home and sit on a porch like the one where Amanda would have entertained her gentlemen callers.

Organizers say the festival isn’t just for literature scholars.

“We’re going to draw those kinds of people, but people I think in Columbus themselves are very, very proud of Tennessee Williams,” said Adele Elliott, who does social media and advertising for the Columbus/Lowndes County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The town hosts a scholarly festival to commemorate the writer each fall, but the bicentennial this week will serve more as a lifestyle experience.

On Sunday, a panel of experts will discuss female characters by Williams and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, contemporary of his.

The annual celebration has dramatically raised the profile of Williams in his hometown.

“The impact of Columbus on his family and their memories has been brought to the attention of people in Columbus in a way that it wasn’t up until 10 years ago,” Pieschel said.

He is particularly excited about a lunch performance Thursday and Friday of Williams’ play “Strangest Kind of Romance” in the Rosenzweig Arts Center.

“I’m looking forward to that because those will be professional actors on a specific piece of writing by Tennessee Williams that I’ve never seen before,” he said. “Nobody in Columbus has ever seen it before, so that’s kind of nice.”

Pieschel said area schools have benefited from being able to see Williams’ productions performed on stage more often. He said it gives teachers the opportunity to discuss theatre as an art form with their students.

Festivities officially kicked off Sunday with a road trip to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans. And the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library has already opened its doors to visitors wishing to see a collection of movie posters and play bills from his productions around the world.

“We have some from England, we have some from Spain, so it really just shows that dynamic aspect to him as a playwright, that he was international and not just American,” said Mona Vance, the library’s archivist. Vance said the collection would be on display through April.

Nancy Carpenter, project manager for the visitors bureau, said people taking part in the centennial this week can experience the way Columbus socialites, such as Williams’ mother, would have eaten at parties, seen plays advertised and even decorated their parlors.

All day Saturday, Williams’ childhood home will be open to the public. Last summer, a $450,000 restoration to the Carpenter Gothic-style house was completed. The house has now been restored to its likely original colors, with a monochromatic, green interior that includes artichoke-colored trim.

“That property is actually a national literary landmark and a Mississippi landmark, and on the National Historic Register,” said Carpenter. “That’s a pretty significant building, not only in Columbus but in the state of Mississippi.”

Williams lived at the house, which was the Episcopal rectory, with his maternal grandparents.

“I just feel like we are touching on every avenue by looking at both plays and the music that Tennessee Williams enjoyed and by hosting a birthday party that’s open to the public,” Carpenter said. A “Big Band” concert at the Trotter Convention Center Thursday night will be typical of the kind of music that Williams would have enjoyed.