In Selma ’65, playwright Catherine Filloux brings to life the interconnected stories of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist who marched for voting rights at Selma in 1965, and Tommy Rowe, FBI informant, undercover with the Ku Klux Klan. Fellow playwright Kia Corthron sat down with Catherine to discuss the new play, her writing process, and arts activism.
Kia Corthron: How did you come across the story of Viola Liuzzo?
Catherine Filloux: The actress Marietta Hedges commissioned me to write her a one-woman play. She brought me the story of Viola Liuzzo. She had traveled through Alabama and the story came to her attention.
KC: The play requires a phenomenally talented actress with the faculty to play opposites and change on a dime between roles: female protagonist / male antagonist and both such very different people. What inspired this fascinating choice to create the story as a solo show? In future productions, can you imagine the play being cast with two actors? Or with the solo actor being a man?
CF: It needed to be a solo show as it was a commission from Marietta Hedges for her to play alone. After doing a lot of research on the story, I became inspired by the idea that the play would include both Viola Liuzzo and Gary Thomas Rowe (Tommy). This provided a theatricality which excited me. I knew that on that dark empty road in the Lowndes swamp Viola and Tommy’s lives converged. The plot which led to this convergence struck me as dramatic and complex. Yes, I can imagine the play being cast with two actors. I believe that the two characters will provide tour de force roles for two actors; and that the intricate dance they play with each other as their lives move towards the inevitable meeting will be theatrical in a different way than the solo show. Yes, the solo actor could also be a man. If it can be an actress playing a woman and a man, then it can also be an actor playing a man and woman. That idea intrigues me!
KC: Was this your first one-person play? What sort of challenges did you face? Or new liberties the form afforded you?
CF: Yes it was my first one-person play. One of my challenges was to keep Viola and Tommy in action. For example when Viola flashes back to watching Bloody Sunday on television I wanted the audience to see her struggle firsthand with her children and husband. When she goes to New York with her friend Sarah we see her get stuck on a ledge because she is impulsive. And the audience sees Tommy in action at the Klan meetings he is infiltrating. I created markers such as Viola’s driving with Leroy in the front seat, and for Tommy, talking to his handlers, and testifying in front of the Senate. The challenge was to activate the scenes and avoid exposition.
A new liberty is breaking the fourth wall since in a one-person play the audience is the actor’s scene partner. I spoke to my friend Heather Raffo about her beautiful one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire and she gave me insight on the relationship between the performer and the audience.
KC: There are so many wonderful details, especially regarding the movements of the local Klan. Was some of this word-for-word documented testimony? For this as well as with regard to Viola Liuzzo’s history and family relations, what was your research process?
CF: I did a lot of research about the local Klan. Their terminology is very specific: men referred to as “Wizards,” and important meetings called “Fiery Summons.” I sifted through the language and details to create that world, but it was never word-for-word documented testimony. My research process was to read as much as possible, which included many books such as The Informant by Gary May; Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter; and Viola Liuzzo’s biography by Mary Stanton. I was able to speak to both Gary May and Diane McWhorter and they were very helpful in answering my questions. I looked through the large FBI report on Viola Liuzzo’s murder; acquired old footage of Tommy on the TV show 20/20; watched films about both Liuzzo and Tommy and the context of their stories; and Gary Thomas Rowe wrote a book with a ghost writer. I interviewed experts on the Ku Klux Klan such as David Cunningham and Michael Frierson. An article in Ladies’ Home Journal from 1965 provided insight on women’s reactions to Viola Liuzzo’s murder.
KC: Most writers probably would have opted for a more directly adversarial antagonist, a committed Klansmen, but you instead made the much more interesting, daring, and complex choice of an apparent “good ole boy” who is not what he seems. It’s especially exquisite writing to have an actress who is playing a man who is pretending to be someone he’s not. What was it that attracted you to this character rather than the typical true Klansmen with whom he associates?
CF: Thanks. As I mentioned structurally in the play, Viola and Tommy’s lives converge. I was haunted by the moment when Tommy, in his car, would have seen Viola, in her car, and when Viola might have also seen Tommy. Though Tommy has to be a good actor to trick the Klan into thinking he is a Klansman when he is actually an FBI informant, I imagined that he may have had difficulty pretending at the moment when Viola was shot. Theatrically it was relevant that Tommy needed much bravado to succeed at the double-edged sword job he had: to pretend to be one of the Klan, and not get caught as his handlers ordered him to do. I saw Tommy as getting further into a vortex that was swallowing him up. And he always wanted to please his handlers and to believe that his bravado was for a good cause. The FBI recruited him; they came looking for him, because it seemed he was the kind of guy who could help them. And yet the FBI was anti-civil rights so it was a tightrope to walk, as Tommy says. Also Tommy shares qualities with Viola: he is from the South; married three times with five children; never made it through high school.
KC: The commercial, the film footage, the imagined contemporary Fox reporter: In what way did you feel that the mainstream media and pop culture are a part of this story?
CF: It was relevant that the film on TV Justice at Nuremberg was interrupted to show viewers Bloody Sunday on breaking news, and I wondered how Viola could get her children back to bed. A commercial break seemed like a possibility and then I found the soap commercial which showed a 1965 woman who grew horns on her head because of a soap her husband uses. The Ku Klux Klan’s allegiance to the film The Birth of a Nation was relevant, as was the idea that Tommy needed to sit through it repeatedly. The Fox News footage about dead voters going to the polls in South Carolina tells the story of a false rumor Fox News started, and that seemed metaphorical: in my view Viola was haunting the Lowndes swamp as a “dead voter” whose life was taken because she attended the voting march, and then mainstream media created a way to demean the voting rights act with a “dead voters” fable. And there’s a sense then that the cost of history is disposable.
KC: You write opera as well as straight plays. What is it in a story that makes you decide it lends itself to be told in music, or not?
CF: My four opera libretti have been commissions in which the composer and the stories were brought to me by companies or organizations. I believe that in playwriting the playwright is solely in the driver’s seat while she is writing the play. In opera the composer and the music come first. I work with and for the composer to create the story and the words within the world of the music.
KC: Have you ever before written so biographically? In writing from the perspective of real people who had once lived, did you feel intimidated? Did you find the experience more liberating? Both?
CF: I have written from the perspective of real people who have once lived with: Mary Todd Lincoln and Myra Bradwell; Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge dictator; Raphael Lemkin, the Polish, Jewish lawyer who coined the word “genocide.” In these cases I don’t feel that my plays are biographies but re-imaginings of historical events, which are artistic works, written especially for the theater. For example, the play about Lemkin begins as he dies, and takes place in the afterlife; Pol Pot transforms between the dictator and a fictitious poet-genocide-survivor. The way I feel intimidated is in terms of trying to find the soul of these characters. Lemkin felt like a soul mate to me though he died in 1959. I would never have written about Mary Todd Lincoln had I not first read everything I could about her and fallen in love with her character; it was through her letters that I found the poetry of her voice. For Viola Liuzzo I wanted to show her living through her human contradictions and to show her testifying in a way similar to the way that Tommy testifies to the Senate; in Viola’s case she testifies in the afterlife to the audience and is allowed to address her vilification. With Tommy, I was intimidated by the truth of what actually happened at the time of the murder. I was lucky to speak to Gary May about my conclusion regarding what Tommy did with the gun he had in his hand, as he pretended to be KKK. Yes there is also a liberation in having the parameters of history, and a liberation in souls mingling through writing for the stage.
KC: You are an artist-activist, addressing social justice concerns from around the world as well as actively participating in various movements for human rights. Your numerous credits include your oral history work with Cambodian women refugees in the Bronx and your travel to Phnom Penh for the production of Where Elephants Weep, your opera addressing the Khmer Rouge; your travel to Iraq for the ArtRole International Women’s Conference and for the premiere of the Kurdish translation of The Beauty Inside, your play addressing honor killings; your participation in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program reading-tour delegation to Sudan and South Sudan; and your role as co-founder of Theatre Without Borders. In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary Selma march, your Selma ’65 had its world premiere at LaMama which was immediately followed by a national tour, many of the stops at college campuses. Given that, for young people today, the civil rights movement is usually relegated to the history books, is this university tour in part an intent to bring the movement to students in a more present, dynamic fashion?
CF: Yes exactly. It was fascinating to hear young people, students speak about how they knew nothing about this story and also often nothing about its context. They also spoke at the talkbacks of their hope to make change. At Brandeis University, the students led the talkback themselves; at The Park School in Baltimore, the students saw the play before a group of them traveled to Selma, Alabama. I’m told by human rights activists that the world needs artists of all types if we are to solve some of the most difficult issues facing our society. The underlying assumption of human rights work is that every single person deserves to live life with dignity. How is it that the Supreme Court in 2013 virtually dismantled the Voting Rights Act? Yes, the civil rights movement is present, front and center.
KC: What surprised you most about the process of creating the play? Unexpected discoveries?
CF: While creating the play, I did many rewrites. Marietta Hedges would read the play for a small group in a closed reading. I would ask questions. It was surprising how hard it is to balance action and clarity. I don’t want to “explain” when I write, I want to create a prism in which the play casts different lights for different people. I strive for poetry, storytelling, theatricality and economy. It’s always an unexpected discovery to see how that can be achieved.
KC: Anything else you’d like to add?
CF: I’m so enjoying your book The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter and hope that I’ll get a chance to interview you about it!
Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty years. Filloux’s new play Kidnap Road was the headline for Planet Connections reading series in New York City and she was honored with the Planet Activist Award due to her long career as an activist artist in the theater community. Recent productions include: Selma ‘65, which premiered at La MaMa in New York City and is now touring the U.S., and Luz at La MaMa and Looking for Lilith Theatre Company in Louisville, Kentucky. Other plays: Dog and Wolf (59E59 Theaters, New York City); Killing the Boss (Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City);Lemkin’s House (Rideau de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium; McGinn-Cazale Theatre, New York City; Kamerni Teatar 55, Sarajevo, Bosnia; and Roxy Art House, Edinburgh, Scotland); The Breach, with Tarell McCraney and Joe Sutton (Seattle Repertory Theatre and Southern Rep, New Orleans); The Beauty Inside (New Georges, New York City, co-produced with InterAct Theatre Co., Philadelphia); Eyes of the Heart (National Asian American Theatre Company, New York City); Silence of God Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepherdstown, W.V.); and Mary and Myra (Pygmalion Productions, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Contemporary American Theater Festival.) Catherine went on an overseas reading tour to Sudan and South Sudan organized by the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program; and her play The Beauty Inside was produced in Northern Iraq, in the Kurdish language, by ArtRole. She is the librettist for three produced operas, and has been commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to write the libretto for composer Olga Neuwirth’s new opera, Orlando, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf (2019). Catherine’s more than twenty plays have been produced in the U.S. and around the world. She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders and has served as a speaker for playwriting and human rights organizations around the world. www.catherinefilloux.com
Kia Corthron’s plays have premiered in New York at Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, Atlantic Theater Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Brooklyn Academy of Music; in London at the Royal Court Theatre and Donmar Warehouse; and many regional theatres including the Goodman, Children’s Theatre Company, Yale Rep, NY Stage and Film, Hartford Stage, Mark Taper Forum, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival. Her first novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, was released in January by Seven Stories Press.