by Molly Hand
What makes a Southern woman? I sometimes wonder. Having lived in the South myself for many, many years and married into a family that has resided in Tallahassee, Florida for generations, I observe qualities of Southern women and notice my own difference, even as I have learned to display some of the characteristics, don camouflage, blend in. Among my core values is a refusal to make generalizations, to reduce heterogeneous groups to stereotypes or tidy demographic descriptions. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, human beings are capable of infinite variety. This is true even of Southern women—it is impossible to make generalizations about them as a group, as though there were specific defining features and identifying marks. And yet, as a Northerner in a Southern town, I still feel an outsider sometimes. I think about this in terms of habitus, as explained by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I inhabit characteristics, a disposition, a way of being that marks me as slightly different. Whereas native Southern women inhabit their Southern-ness comfortably, unthinkingly, I must make an effort to wear that costume.
While the costume still feels awkward to me sometimes, Laura Johnson wears it gracefully. Johnson is a remarkable Southern woman because, although she isn’t from the South, she embodies Southern charm and is immersed in this community to such an extent that she seems fully a part of it, comporting herself with assurance and ease. Having made Tallahassee her home, she owns her Southern-ness and, as Executive Director of the Southern Shakespeare Festival, she is actively shaping the culture of this Southern community.
When I first met Laura Johnson, I was immediately impressed. “Wait until you meet Mephistopheles!” This was how I had first heard about her. Brent Griffin, the co-director of Resurgens Theatre Company’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, was filling me in on some details of the show, including plans for an all-female cast, with the exception of Faustus, played by Griffin himself. Cast as Faustus’s infernal companion, Johnson would be, Griffin promised, captivating. When I met Johnson shortly thereafter, any skepticism I had, any hyperbole I read in her praise, were immediately dispelled. Charming. Enchanting. Bewitching. Johnson casts a spell.
I’ve now seen Johnson twice in the role of Mephistopheles, so perhaps I associate her implicitly with that character’s devilish appeal. But Johnson is appealing apart from the stage personae she’s inhabited. She is remarkable for her many accomplishments and contributions to the community, but what is striking about Johnson is something apart from her achievements and activities. She exudes an inherent elegance and strength. I run out of patience, I get frantic, I worry about meeting deadlines and not exercising enough and remembering to buy dish soap when I go to the grocery store. Johnson must have such feelings because they are human feelings, but I would never guess it. By appearances, she is all kindness, patience, and confidence. Not a devil, but a human gifted with copious grace.
Can you tell that I’m a little bit in awe, even a little bit envious, of the composure with which Johnson juggles her many responsibilities, the ease with which she balances on the tight rope? As Executive Director of the annual Southern Shakespeare Festival, Johnson has taken charge in the revival of an event that has been on hiatus since 2000. The position is demanding, as it requires fund-raising, recruiting and rallying volunteers for education and community outreach, and many other time-consuming activities. Being Executive Director for the festival requires organizational and management skills—skills that Johnson acquired when she was Outpatient Medical Nutrition Therapist at Archbold Memorial Hospital in Thomasville, Georgia, and further honed when she left the hospital and began her own consulting practice. The Executive Director position for a large-scale festival requires soft skills, too—“people” skills—and in this area, Johnson excels. At the same time that she elicits interest from her listeners—did I mention she is gorgeous in addition to being a human being of superior kindness and intellect?—she also rewards audiences with sincere attention and expresses vivid, genuine interest (another quality I envy, since I tend to have a poker face, or what is known in some circles as bitchy resting face, so even when I AM interested, it’s entirely possible that I’m conveying boredom or annoyance). Johnson’s audience knows she is listening, knows she cares.
Johnson’s success as Executive Director for Southern Shakespeare Festival must certainly stem from her deep embrace of the South. Where some “Yankee” émigrés dwell on negative qualities and connotations of the South—mourn a certain lack of culture, deride an accent that to them bespeaks ignorance, belittle the food, etc.—Johnson embraces this milieu and works to enhance and grow Tallahassee’s cultural life. As she says, “I have Brooklyn in my blood, Kentucky Bourbon in my belly, and red clay on my boots. I have also spent the greater part of my life now in Florida and so feel very much ‘adopted’ by my Southern family. I think an appreciation of Southern life and culture is as much a state of mind and attitude as it is a function of your geography.”
I never developed a taste for Bourbon myself (Southern fail!), but I think I know where she is coming from. Sometimes it’s those at a remove from a place who are in a position to appreciate it more, take it less for granted. The places and people we adopt, the culture we choose to participate in and to which we choose to contribute our energy and creativity hold special places in our hearts. The South, particularly Tallahassee and the surrounding areas, is better for Johnson having adopted us, for she is devoting herself to building our cultural community and providing us with an annual event that will edify the area’s residents for years to come. And she is doing so with an awareness of the locale, a cognizance of the “Southern” in Southern Shakespeare Festival.
In fact, for Johnson the “Southern” element is of particular importance to the festival. Geographically speaking, she sees Tallahassee is an ideal location. The nearest festival in the South, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, is 200 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama—no short distance from Tallahassee. Shakespeare events in south Florida, such as the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, are also several hundred miles away. Johnson and others who dreamed of reviving the festival wanted to see an annual Shakespeare event in North Florida, serving Tallahassee and the surrounding area. As Florida’s state capital and host of multiple universities and colleges as well as local theater companies and music programs, Tallahassee is, according to Johnson, uniquely suited for an outdoor Shakespeare Festival of a magnitude that will draw audiences from all over the Southeast. Significantly, Johnson’s visions for the future are deeply embedded in the context of Florida’s capital; she tells me, “We have made no definitive decisions but we are contemplating Julius Caesar in the quintessential southern capital and political town of Tallahassee, Macbeth centered around an antebellum Southern ancestral home in the late 19th century. The possibilities are so intriguing.” While whetting our appetite for future events, Johnson’s current focus is this year’s festival, which culminates in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Capital City Amphitheater, Cascades Park, on April 18th.
As a transplanted Northerner who has adopted, and been adopted by, the South, I relate to Johnson’s background and admire the degree to which she has settled into our community, and as a Shakespeare scholar, I’m grateful for Johnson’s continuing efforts to see Southern Shakespeare Festival firmly rooted here. I imagine her tilling the earth and planting Shakespeare, hence the red clay on her boots. That she performs the challenging work of bringing the festival to life with unflagging energy and unflappable grace makes her quite a remarkable Southern woman indeed.
Molly Hand (Ph.D., Florida State University, 2009) is a writer, editor, researcher, and English instructor who lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Her work has been published in the journal Renaissance and Reformation (31.1, Winter 2008), and in the volumes Working Subjects in Early Modern English Drama, edited by Michelle Dowd and Natasha Korda (Ashgate 2011), and the Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton, edited by Trish Henley and Gary Taylor (OUP 2012). She recently edited a historical anthology of women’s spiritual writings (Women’s Writings in Christian Spirituality, Dover 2013), and is currently researching the roles of animals in English witchcraft trials.