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Jan. 19, 1998
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Dilettante


Belle heiress
Splashing around in the bottomless barrel of the literary archetype known as the Southern woman.

By Summer Burkes

What is it about white Southern women that makes them easy targets for literary hyperbole? Is it their milk-fed gentility, born of English aristocracy and fueled by an inherited, at times obsessive dedication to manners over truth? Is it because they're birds in gilded cages, politely tragic figurines unable to carve out a name of their own aside from the patronizing pedestal upon which they've been collectively placed? Is it the intimation that if that pedestal were suddenly taken away, all that would remain would be a shell? Or is it the hint that under all of Mrs. Steadman J. Ragsdale, IV's taffeta and hair spray lies a pressure-cooker temper and a vengeful hellcat of Hyde-like proportions?

Of course, these are the stereotypes that should have gone out with corsets and hoop skirts, but the South, particularly the Old South, remains a source of ridicule for much of the country, and that ridicule remains a thorn in the side of every born Southerner trying to outlive images of garden parties, lynchings, fiddle-dee-dees, and slavery. Thankfully, in Venue 9's current solo show "Alabama Bound: On the Back Roads with Some Edgy Southern Women," local performance artist Charlotte Higgins roots herself in the regular-Jane characters of the New South. Although in her show the Southern (mostly African) storytelling tradition has its feathers spread wide and the lilting, long-vowelled accents border on caricature, there's not a Maggie, Blanche, Stella, or Scarlett in sight.

Higgins, a native Alabaman presumably tired of the grits, guns, incest, and UFO sightings common to stereotypical New South lore, has carefully sculpted five images of middle- to lower-class women of all ages, taking care to make them likable even as she shows their flaws. An alcoholic, cussin', cigarette-smokin' 911 operator with a deadbeat boyfriend and a gambling habit blows off a night on the local Indian reservation casino to get nosy with one of her calls. An 87-year-old convalescent and unwitting Zen practitioner, abandoned by her family five years ago at a second-rate old folks' home, hides her caustic wit with a defiant, stony silence. And a repressed, dissatisfied housewife observes her verbally abusive husband and mother-in-law from the safety of her kitchen, mentioning her own breast cancer in passing as she puts too much salt in the ailing bitch's peas.

Higgins took a road trip to her homeland with photographer Eileen Lewis to craft this story. Choosing to sidestep racism (it is, after all, not a regional problem), she instead rips the class system that still grips the South to shreds. Slide photos projected on the wall between sketches show mostly obese, stone-faced women of the economically challenged region whose Anglo/Native American gene pool can't take the malnutrition poverty forces upon them. Most have cigarette wrinkles and trinket collections. Only once do we see a Designing Woman seated on her spiral staircase, and indeed, her haughty glare intimidates.

The best sketch of the evening involves a Neiman Marcus salon employee who, curious to attend the same fancy-lady "disease dances" that her wealthy customers frequent, sneaks in, is politely ridiculed by the ex-debs like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and is asked to leave. Unfazed, she revels in the story, showing off the Southern flair for simile ("Alice baby, that dress looks like somethin' you would bake a tuh-key in") and dropping her own middle-class drawl to mimic the English lilt of the old-money guard (yes, there is a difference). And like a good, prideful Southern belle, she convinces herself that she's had the last laugh.

Alabama Bound: On the Back Roads with Some Edgy Southern Women continues Thurs/21-Sat/23, 8 p.m. at Venue 9, San Francisco.



LOGO ILLUSTRATIONS: BETH ALLEN

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