Williams drew some of his most powerful images from his boyhood hometown in the Mississippi Delta, where an annual festival now celebrates the city's role in Williams' award-winning stories.
The name Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire" belonged to a friend of Williams' mother in Clarksdale. Brick, the alcoholic athlete played by Paul Newman in the 1958 film, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," was the name of a local boy who bullied Williams while he was student at Oakhurst Elementary.
The Tennessee Williams Festival, produced by Coahoma Community College, begins Friday and features a Stella shouting contest, acting competitions, porch plays and panel discussions about Williams and his life in Mississippi. A BBC documentary of last year's festival will be aired. Producer Carmel Lonergan said it shows links between Williams' upbringing and surroundings and many of his dramas.
The Clarksdale gathering is one of several Tennessee Williams festivals held around the nation each year. Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis performed at one early in September in Columbus, the eastern Mississippi city where Williams was born in 1911. The 24th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is next March. A Provincetown, Mass., festival on Williams was held last month.
The playwright — born Thomas Lanier Williams — lived as a child in Clarksdale with his maternal grandparents, The Rev. Walter Dakin and his wife, Rose. The locals say Williams would go on parish calls with his grandfather, and often heard church gossip and colorful tales in the early 1900s.
"Tennessee was just fascinated by the Clark family and the Cutrers," Coahoma College spokeswoman Panny Mayfield said, referring to two prominent Clarksdale families. "The Cutrers were very flamboyant people. Their home was a mecca for international people. They had masked balls and elaborate house parties. We're talking about cotton money."
Mayfield said J.W. Cutrer was a successful lawyer, and his wife's name was Blanche.
The St. George's Episcopal Church, where Williams' grandfather once served as priest, still stands, as does Cutrer Mansion, where masked balls inspired imagery in some of the writer's plays, as well as the fictional home Belle Rive in "Streetcar."
Stella Connell Salmon, 80, never met Williams, but she knew his grandfather, who often visited Clarksdale after he left the rectory. Salmon, who has participated in previous panels, said she always wondered why Williams never used her mother's name, Thankful, in some of his work.
"He used so many local names. I always felt he slighted her," Salmon said.
The morality conflicts woven through Williams' plays are believed to have roots in his years living in the rectory, said Mayfield. Williams, who was openly gay, once said it wasn't until he moved to New Orleans that he was able to "live freely," she said.
Even after Williams moved away he kept up with the goings-on in Clarksdale, Mayfield said.
One of the highlights this year will be actor Johnny McPhail's portrayal of the disenchanted traveling shoe salesman from "The Last of My Solid Gold Watches."
McPhail, who starred in "Ballast," a Sundance Film Festival winner in 2008, said Williams' stories are true to Southern culture.
"It's like he was writing about me. I know the language. If you read it the way it is written, you can't help but say it with a Southern dialect," said McPhail, who lives in Oxford, Miss.
The play takes place at Clarksdale's Alcazar Hotel, where Williams' grandfather lived for a spell after serving as St. George's rector for 16 years.
"It's the 'Death of a Salesman' in the Mississippi Delta," McPhail said.
Clarksdale has become a kind of training ground for thespians involved in revived productions of Williams' plays, said Mayfield.
British actress Ruth Wilson spent time here to prepare for her role as Stella in a West End production of a "Streetcar" that's still running. Mayfield took Wilson, a Golden Globe nominee, to Cutrer Mansion, Moon Lake, and the Delta plantation homes. Mayfield said actress Frances O'Connor, who played Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," also was given a tour of the area several years ago.
Local diction coaches gave them tips on how to talk Southern.
"They sat around on the floor and listened to her say some lines," Mayfield said. "They would say, 'No you don't say it like that.' It was a fun thing. They were having a great time."
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