I have a confession: I have many mixed feelings about Southern-fried humor. You know the kind—where every cliché and stereotype mocks us kinfolk of the South as bassackward, whether in dialect (i.e. mispronunciation of words) or a “bless your heart” scenario that colors us two-faced and haughty. Part of the reason stems from truth; it hurts to watch people paint a picture of a demographic that hits close to home, especially when such portrayals aren’t very flattering.
Such is apparent in local playwright Joel Perry’s “Azalea Fest Queen,” now showing at TheatreNOW through April and directed by his husband James Bowling. Watching the comedy was part heart wrenching and part funny. When it comes to a family from the South dealing with heavy issues, like acceptance of a gay son, it’s hard to find the funny in those who ostracize him, care more about their money and reputation, and struggle with even bare niceties rather than pure love for a child.
Alas meet the Jonathan family. Thanks to selling their pig farm in Burgaw, they are hell-bent on paying their way to the top of high society in Wilmington. They have a big five-bedroom house, with four-and-half bathrooms, and even their own sewing room to boot, not to mention a very large, ostentatious chandelier in the foyer (“for-yay” not “for-yer,” as it was pronounced when they lived on farm land). Their ticket to ride comes with some half-cocked idea from Momma Jenny Jonathan (Kathy Cagney Rossi), who finds that buying her dear daughter Jackie’s (Heather Costello) crown as Azalea queen will be just the way to hob nob with and finally be accepted by the creme dé la creme of Wilmington. And, so, she sends Daddy Jim Jonathan (Rich Deike) to the Azalea Fest committee, which puts on the annual beauty pageant, so he can bargain his way to the top with one of many 0’s filled out in his checkbook. However, the Jonathan’s nouveau-riche status really means nothing to the old South. The Jonathans are outbid by another family with more bucks, which knocks down their daughter’s Azalea queen title to first princess.
Jackie is none too thrilled about her parents’ plan. She just wants to graduate from Duke so she can marry the backwoods boy she’s in love with—much to her mom’s dismay, who would rather her daughter be with that rich boy alcoholic who has a name for himself. Though Jackie attempts to put on a good face and show up to the annual festivities in her belle gown, in the end of it all, she just runs away and leaves the family scrambling to figure out what to do. Basically, they connive and hide in shame from having a no-show princess they damn-well paid good money for.
Though the Jonathans are new to riches, they certainly aren’t to progressive ways of thinking. They are stuck in praying to Jesus for their sins, and within five seconds degrading their son to “man up”—maybe go to the Citadel instead of having fanciful, girly dreams of owning his own hair salon. Just as well Momma Jenny is very boastful of all their new “things” and more than willing to rub it in her family’s faces—a family she despises and often drops jokes of killing rather frequently—including her sister, Aunt Tillie (Elizabeth Michaels), her mother (Grandmaw, played by Kitty Fitzgibbon) and brother Wilbur (Delbert Skip Maloney).
The Jonathans, essentially, are the living, breathing sentiment of “bless your heart”—only others are saying it about them. They try oh-so-hard to have class; but as the saying goes: You can’t buy class. Instead, they’re buying crass, weaseling their way into high society and attempting to fill in the gaps of their shallow hearts with sparkly, shiny things and bombastic reputations. It’s all an out-right façade that will eventually backfire. And it does, thanks to their children.
Costello as daughter Jackie has a bouncy outlook despite her parents’ insanity. Her youthful naiveté may seem dunce at the onset, but by the end, she proves the only one with any sense, and for that I praise her.
Rossi ups the drama tenfold as the matriarch central to all the collusion. I’m unsure her character could have enough of anything, honestly. She’s played as less of a caring mother and more like a Queen B. Thus it’s not too far-fetched her son would mimic her over-the-top scandalous ideas, with his own retribution by the show’s end.
Nicholas Taylor plays the gay son with extreme feminine characteristics that also paint him cliché gay. Actually, I couldn’t help but wonder if the time period was supposed to be set in the ‘80s—a time when everyone thought a gay man had to be overtly feminine. If so, maybe I can see the dated ideals at play here, where acceptance equals a slander on reputation. Though I know our nation still struggles with acceptance of marginalized citizens today, we’ve come a very long way from 30, even 20 years ago—which this show seemingly doesn’t get. It’s confusing, too, for an audience who sees a rotary dial phone and some questionable hair-dos (side pony tails, anyone—definitely ‘80s) but then also sees a modern-day Azalea Fest commercial as part of the show that markets Ludacris as a headliner.
The problem is it hurts the suspense of disbelief.
However, Jerry is the one the audience applauds at the end for his one-uppancy—and for that we can’t help but love him.
The other cast members are noticeable but less memorable. Deike is mellow in his portrayal of a father who can’t accept a gay son. His laid-back vibe doesn’t jive with such heavy-handed attitudes apparent in the script.
The rest of the family seems like they’re only there to serve as punching bags to the Jonathans. Aside from a few colorful, unsavory lines and actions (i.e. Wilbur’s incestuous praise for his niece; grandmaw’s scowl and cane-wielding disdain), we don’t really see why everyone hates each other. We’re only told why, usually through dialogue, which tips its hat to Southern colloquialisms that did tickle me pink in some ways (“pot liquor,” “lying like a no-legged dog”).
But the biggest problem with the play is it doesn’t really show the audience about this family’s long-term rift; it only tells them. I want to see the constructs of the world being crafted, and with nuance, which the “Azalea Festival Queen” lacks. Everything is overdone here: the jokes, the one-liners, the quips, the acting. It doesn’t quite pass for camp in my book, to appreciate its overblown ethos, not to mention it’s somewhat predictable. Yes, I laughed a few times, but in the end, it didn’t feel very satisfying—not even when Jerry gets his payback. It’s hard to get behind laughter when the whole joke feels rooted in spite and hatefulness rather than love and mercy.
But have mercy on Denise Gordon for saving grace. Her Southern-inspired three-course meal shows up right on time. Creamy mac ‘n’ cheese soaks up all sad feelings of realizing there are still families who do not accept the differences of their own kin. Gordon reminds us why soul food is known as comfort food, with hearty homemade biscuits, stewed tomatoes (perfectly reminding me of my own grandmother’s kitchen) and smoky pintos (which honestly scream for cornbread, but beggars can’t be choosers).
“Azalea Fest Queen” will play through April on Friday and Saturdays, and certainly will find a niche in town who can laugh at attributes of the South that make it haunting sometimes. I just don’t think I am one of them.