The one-man play, written by and starring
's modern day poet laureate, uses words from across Agee's multifaceted career to tell his story.
Morris points out that in his play, the name Agee is
Who was James Agee? We know him best through his writings—a novel of childhood memories, letters to a lifelong friend, self-aware journalistic observations. If a writer's lifetime supply of words can be combined and filtered into a sort of profile, RB Morris has assembled a reflection of Agee in The Man Who Lives Here is Loony .
The one-man play, written by and starring Knoxville's modern day poet laureate, uses words from across Agee's multifaceted career to tell his story. Rather than project on an audience a fantasy of who Agee was, "I wanted to use Agee's words," says Morris. "He's got all these intense opinions, and I wanted to let him speak for himself."
Morris originally wrote the play in the mid-'80s when he was "way into Agee." He imagined it in the genre of one-man shows like Hal Holbrook's take on Mark Twain. But he didn't intend to perform the role himself.
After five years of work, the play had become a one and a half-hour video-film directed by Eric Sublett, shot by Pat Govan, produced by Donna Maxwell—and featuring Morris as Agee. The playwright didn't have the Agee family's permission to show the work in public, so it screened only once: in 1992 in a crowded Bijou Theatre. Since then, The Man Who Lives Here is Loony has become a sort of folk legend, a part of Agee's legacy and a sort of semi-lost part of Morris' continuing body of work of poetry and songs.
Kim Midkiff, outreach and education director of the University of Tennessee theater department, knew Morris had written this play about Agee, so when plans were being finalized for the university's Agee Celebration, Midkiff, also an MFA student, went to her theater compatriots—Bruce Robison and Tom Cervone—with the idea. The fact that Agee and Morris were both native Knoxvillians, and Morris is a UT Writer in Residence, and an entire month of events were being planned around Agee, was just a sign to Midkiff that the timing was right for The Man to make a revival.
Midkiff says at first Morris told her he didn't have time—the very sentiment he'd expressed to the friend who'd suggested Morris write a one-man play about Agee in the first place. "But it was a no-brainer. He needed to be in it," says Midkiff, who, despite her own lack of time, soon signed on as the play's director.
Midkiff thinks of The Man as an extension of her goal to connect the community to live theater. During the Agee celebration, theater-goers will peek through the window of the writer's childhood via All the Way Home , Tad Mosel's adaptation of A Death in the Family . Midkiff characterizes that play as "really precious and sweet." The Man is another side of the coin. "It's a different aspect of Agee, a more adult perspective," she says.
"I wanted the character of Agee in the play to be able to have a perspective from his entire life," Morris says, suggesting that the night the play takes place could be the last night of Agee's life. The shifting reference points to time and location—from his birthplace of Knoxville, the setting of A Death in the Family , to the Brooklyn apartment bearing the words of graffiti that lent the play its title—give the play a kind of intentional timelessness. Without being bound to one period in Agee's life, Morris can allude to them all, using Agee's words, in Morris' voice, to "flavor it and direct it."
Morris and Midkiff worked together on the play for a month and a half before beginning rehearsals. Midkiff, who is studying dramaturgy, says being able to ask an author about his intentions, his motivations, has been priceless. She can't do that with Shakespeare, she quips.
After 20 years, The Man is finally making its debut as a stage play, its original form, with Morris in the lead. He's not a trained actor, but he's certainly a performer. Acting for the camera years ago was one thing, but stretching his legs for a roomful of people? "That really makes a difference, and that's what I'm used to," says Morris, who will also share the stage with some musicians. They're not characters, per se, but, along with the lights and sound effects (provided by Jeff Meyer and Mike Ponder, respectively), they help create a greater dynamic than that of a solo performer.
"I realize it's a monologue," says Morris, who will trounce around the sparse set alone, "but that gives me a sense of dialogue."
Of course, Morris as Agee will be talking to himself, but he's also talking to us—about his life, his legacy, his thoughts and beliefs. Alone in his apartment at night, a man paces the floor, grappling with ideas and opinions about politics, social issues and art. His words are James Agee's, but he could be anyone.
Morris points out that in his play, the name Agee is never spoken. "Only when he's speaking in second and third person is the word 'Jim' mentioned," Morris says. The result is a kind of openness to the character's identity. "The play is in some ways very much about a modern writer or a modern individual," he says. "This play takes place in one night. It only gets later. [Agee] was a night person; he worked at night. It's just a guy trying to write, taking pauses and dealing with writer's block."
What: The Man Who Lives Here is Loony
When: Sunday, April 10, 7 p.m. and Monday, April 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Ula Love Doughty Theatre, UT campus
How much: Free.