​‘The Light of the World’ Reading

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer
An original play written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence and visiting professor of English at the University of the South, will be read at 4 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 24, in Convocation Hall. A reception will follow and the event is free and open to the public.
“The Light of the World” will be directed by Freddie Ashley, artistic director for Actor’s Express in Atlanta, and performed by Jim Crawford, associate professor of theatre at the University, as well as professional actors from Atlanta and Nashville.
The play revolves around the controversy of a small Confederate flag in a church window.
“It’s a story about a church in the South,” said Wilder. “And, there’s a new priest. When a violent incident occurs, the presence of the Confederate flag in their window is called into question. Basically, the church must decide how they want to deal with the issue and how much of the past they want to continue to honor versus who their church is now. It’s a story about confronting and taking responsibility for our past,” Wilder said.
Wilder, who is originally from Mobile, Ala., said the idea for the play came to her a few years ago after visiting a church in Alabama that had a Confederate flag in its window.
“The message the flag sends is so in opposition of what Christianity sends in terms of equality and fairness and justice. That people thought it was a good idea to have these two representations together is something I wanted to explore,” she said. “I hope everyone is entertained, but I also hope it helps promote conversation and dialogue. I think that’s a big part of what theatre is here to do. The play isn’t just about confederate iconography—it addresses our relationship with the word racist and with racism, how we often justify the actions of others that we know to be racist and how we often apologize away those actions in the conversations we have.”
The play was read for the first time in October of last year as part of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s southern writers branch.
“That was the first time I heard the play out loud and in front of an audience. I received some really great feedback that I’ve been able to apply to a new draft,” Wilder said.
“I am particularly excited to do the play in Sewanee because it’s an issue that the University is currently grappling on their own. I think the work that is being done through the reconciliation project is incredibly important to the school and the community because it’s not just a reflection of who we are and it’s a reflection of who we hope to become.”
Ashley of Actor’s Express said the reading will provide an access point to a difficult, but crucial conversation about race.
“I think all of us in the south today are continuing to grapple with our history, and to fully understand it can be a fraught process. When we have a story about people doing just that, there’s a lot of value to it,” he said. “I think that all of us who live in the south, all of us have a shared responsibility to confront our history. No matter what our immediate circumstances are in our life, we are the inheritors of this legacy of racism and violence against African Americans. How that has filtered through to today is something that is necessary to explore so we can continue to move forward toward unity. It’s an easy trap to fall into that those problems are the problems of the past. In fact, the residue of that legacy continues to stick to us even now.”
Ashley and Wilder have known each other for about 15 years, but this weekend will be the first time they’ll get to work together. The group of actors will rehearse on Saturday for the first time, and Gregory Wilder said she will be working on the play up until Friday evening.
“Different readings take on different forms, but the typical set up you could expect is the actors will be standing behind music stands reading from the script,” Ashley said. “I think one of the great things art can do is create space that will hold difficult conversations. Everybody who attends a play is at once having a private personal experience with their own reactions. They’re also having a shared experience with everyone that is there. That can be said about the way we go through our lives too. When you can create a space through a piece of work that allows the space in between to be a place of conversation, that’s huge. Art can facilitate that in a way other outlets may not be able to.”
This event is funded by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.