“To be from Mississippi is to be aware that there’s blood in the soil,” playwright Boo Killebrew drawls.
The Gulfport native’s play, Miller, Mississippi, is having its world premiere at The Dallas Theater Center. It’s a hard play, Killebrew says, but there’s a reckoning coming, and it’s a story she needed to tell. Her play is the tale of one family’s confrontation with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, and the family's ultimate undoing.
The play is a collision of fiction and truth, Killebrew says. Some characters are loosely based on people she knew; other characters she's created. The process of writing Miller, Mississippi was difficult and made her feel vulnerable.
“It’s complicated to write about racism as a white person,” she says. “But it’s my responsibility to investigate the ugliness in my home state.”
Killebrew has spent the last three years working on this play with director and longtime colleague Lee Sunday Evans. She says she knew there was a story about Mississippi to tell, but it was hard to find the right angle.
“I tried to write from a very personal and biographical place but also hide within that story,” she says.
Killebrew is from a progressive family, but she's seen firsthand the ways white supremacy and a legacy of slavery have held back the state. But it doesn’t stop at the Mississippi state line. Killebrew is adamant that this is a nationwide issue that often gets slapped on the South.
“There has not been a reckoning with white supremacy in this country. Those people didn’t go away; they just found new ways to disenfranchise black people,” she says. “It’s up to all of us to take responsibility for this.”
The first step, she says, is putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations so we can learn. In the South, tradition is sacred and change is slow, but the conversation has to start somewhere.
Killebrew loved Tina Fey's recent bit on Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, in which she ate a whole sheet cake in despair over the America's racial climate, but she says white people have to take more action than that.
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“Don’t walk on eggshells, be active in the conversation, don’t be blind to your privilege and be willing to move forward in an improved way."
Killebrew hopes Miller, Mississippi encourages people to challenge problematic behavior labeled as tradition. As the country struggles to dismantle the old monuments of the Civil War, it feels more timely than ever.
“Here, we can sit in a theater with a diverse audience and look at something uncomfortable in a place that is safe," she says.
Miller, Mississippi runs through Oct. 1, Wyly Studio Theatre, 2400 Flora St.. Tickets are $20 and up at attpac.org.