A trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery is always worth the short drive. Now the world premiere of “White Lightning,” the latest play from Mobile native Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, makes the trip even more tempting.
A fictional story that tailgates the real stock-car racing’s early stars and the beginnings of NASCAR, this is the fourth play Wilder has developed through the venerable Southern Writer’s Project, a program that for the past 25 years has developed plays about the Southern experience, contributing nationally significant works to the American theater canon. This particular play, however, is her first work to actually be sponsored in part by Talladega Superspeedway, the longest oval NASCAR track in the United States.
So how did Mobile’s own Elyzabeth Wilder, a woman most famous for writing her award-winning play “Gee’s Bend,” make the move from quilting circles to Talladega?
“I saw a short piece on television that talked about the connection between moonshine and the creation of NASCAR,” she said. “It was a part of the story I had never heard and found it interesting.”
From there, her research found her reading a meticulously researched book called “Driving with the Devil,” and pushing a stroller with her young daughter around a moonshiners’ reunion at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville, Georgia, a community with strong ties to both moonshine and NASCAR.
This combination of reading and hands-on experience informed her exciting, nostalgic story about Avery McAllister, a young man from a moonshining family who was born with his foot on the gas pedal. Avery and his souped-up ’39 Ford move from the winding dirt back roads to the burgeoning racing circuit of the South.
Nationally renowned actors share the stage with another important character: the car itself, an actual ‘39 Ford coupe refabricated for use on stage. The car begins the production as a skeleton and evolves into Avery’s souped-up race car, its physical transformation echoing the emotions of the characters.
While Wilder, who has spent the last three years as the Tennessee Williams Playwright in Residence at Sewanee, the University of the South, might have had to travel and research for her play, she didn’t have to look far to connect with the spirit of the material and the characters.
“I grew up around cars. My dad and grandfather restored antique cars. They both possessed the same defiant spirit that I found in these old moonshiners. I think that was a big part of what drew me to the story; it reminded me of my dad and my grandfather,” Wilder said.
The play opens Thursday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. and runs through March 13 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery. It will return for an additional run at ASF April 28 through May 7. Tickets for this limited run start at $30 and are available online at www.asf.net, by phone at 800-841-4273 and at the ASF box office, located at 1 Festival Drive in the heart of Montgomery’s Blount Cultural Park.