published Saturday, May 24, 2014
Dallas — Sometimes you come across a story that has to be told, a story so suppressed that for it to struggle to the surface of memory is a heroic feat. Beyond story, it is a thing, an archetype that must be heard so to become part of the human story and move us along.
Veronica Russell of New Orleans found such a story in the life of Gertrude Beasley, a kick-ass West Texas woman born in 1892. Raised in a hardscrabble house with 12 siblings, mom was a hysterical martyr and dad was termed “the meanest man in the world.” Yet she graduated college at age 16 and taught high school, ultimately earning a masters degree and traveling internationally as education expert, reporter and feminist raconteur.
Russell’s one-woman play, A Different Woman: A True Story of a Texas Childhood, is a generational story of never wanting to be your mother, yet learning to love her all the same. The play derives from Beasley’s scandalous 1925 autobiography, My First Thirty Years, banned for its frank and funny depictions of forbidden topics. A Different Woman runs Saturday as part of first annual Dallas Solo Fest held at the Margo Jones Theatre, located in the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park across from the Old Mill Inn.
A Different Woman is so much more than a period piece or inspiring tale of overcoming hardships. It is about the grey areas in life, how it is to loathe and love at once. When one is intelligent and aware in a rural sea of stupidity, fighting back with a sense of humor and two fast fists can be the only way to survive intact. The play dances with the difficulty of forgiveness without trust and ponders if it’s possible for people to change. Yet over three decades, Beasley herself moves from hate and pity to sympathy and then empathy for her family.
Portraying Beasley in a feminine ’20s-style black dress with ecru lace collar, thick stockings and hard Mary Jane shoes, Russell recounts a litany of terror and abuse, culminating in the ultimate betrayal, then reveals to the audience that by that time she was only four. It’s a gasp-inducing moment. Another round of horrific tales unveils by the time she reaches eight. It was a Lord of the Flies struggle among feral children and parents too absorbed in their own dramas to cope.
Yet A Different Woman is chock full of laugh lines and quips with a kick that make the tender and heartbreaking parts so much deeper. Beasley is merciless on the righteous and willfully dumb, and honest in an era during which propriety was everything. She is a ferociously witty writer, sardonic and even cynical, yet skewers her own faults with equal panache. When the great Bertrand Russell thinks you’re funny, you’re funny.
With director Perry Martin, Russell has crafted a play that skillfully makes vivid a historical figure known only from the pages of a book. She is an elegant actor and aces the early 19th century mannerisms of polite society: the stiff-back posture, knees clamped together and hips held tight, a neck as tight as her pinned-back hairstyle, even the dainty grasping of hands when a worry or anxiety unfolds. She looks just like the schoolmarm Beasley was for the first 25 years of her life. And right behind her you see her mother.
Do yourself a favor and visit Russell’s website to learn more of Beasley, the persecution she endured for daring to her pen her autobiography, her sad fate, and revival courtesy of Larry McMurtry. More fascinating material is in this Texas Observer article, The Disappearance of Gertrude Beasley.