In ‘Kudzu,’ the South Faces Itself

By Rick Bragg

WASHINGTON - Not everyone who lives in the South, who was born in the lee of a kudzu-ensnarled water tower on a road where filling stations advertise barbecue and worms' in the same breath and the hard-headed mechanic works only on American cars, actually loves the South.

Sometimes, people have to learn to love it, to love their place in it long after fate or fortune tugs them away from a world where the hounds sleep like the dead between the oil-stained boots of old men and the local newspaper comes out every Thursday.

That, give or take a half-dozen subplots, is the message in "Kudzu," the musical comedy based on the comic strip of the same name by Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist who grew up in North Carolina in places like the mythical town of Bypass, the setting for his strip and the show.

"Kudzu," playing through June here in Ford's Theater- the place where John Wilkes Booth put a bullet in President Abraham Lincoln's brain during a production of "Our American Cousin" on April 14, 1865- is the story of a weed and a boy of the same name, an 18-year-old would-be writer named Kudzu Dubose.

One of them - that would be the weed - prospers in the red clay as the other tries in vain to snip and clip and otherwise stop its insidious spread even as his own life seems hopelessly bound by small-town inertia, by a slow pace of life that is threatened when the town's evil leading citizen, Big Bubba Tadsworth, tries to sell the very soul of the tiny hamlet to Japanese investors. The Japanese, as the plot goes, want to make it the world headquarters of their company, "the world's largest manufacturer of American flags."

The show “touches a very strong emotional cord, not only of what it means to be Southern but what it means to feel isolated, far from the centers where power and wealth lie," said William Ferris, a Mississippian and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts." But deep below the vines of kudzu is a magical world, and the show evokes both the sad and the beautiful parts of that world.

"As we approach the millennium, you become increasingly aware that these worlds are quite precious,"

The mythical Bypass got its name because when the state built its big, new highway it forgot to give the town an exit. So, as the show explains, the world just passes Bypass by, as everyone from Kudzu to the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the ambitious preacher, dream of trading their little town - "a place so backward even the Episcopalians handle snakes" – for something grander.

"I get weepy when I see it, because it is my story and the story of every artist born in a small town or provincial city," said Pat Conroy, the best-selling author of "The Prince of Tides" and other books about Southerners. "No matter how good we are, we all have the fear we're not good enough."

Southerners blame the very place that nurtured them, that made them, he said. "William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, all knew about it, about having to learn to love the South," said Mr. Conroy, who is a close friend of Mr. Marlette.

But the musical, powered by the guitars, fiddles and piano of the Red Clay Ramblers, an eclectic band that began in weekend jam sessions in a North Carolina cabin but has performed around the world and on Broadway, is also a love story about the South, said the people who have seen it and can identify with the region.

One of the players, Kudzu's grease-spotted Uncle Dub, the town mechanic, is the community's voice of restraint, a man who is content -With himself and his town. Kudzu, wanting to go off to the big city to be a writer, is torn between that force of good and that of Big Bubba, whose daughter - the shallow and vapid but beautiful Veranda - has stolen Kudzu's heart.

As the play unfolds, the audience wonders whether Kudzu -who turns out to be the unexpected owner of the property Big Bubba wants for himself for the Japanese-owned American flag factory - discovers the value in his town and himself. There are references to luring Mercedes plants and other foreign investors pulled straight from real headlines as the boy decides.

“Don’t you hate when opportunity knocks and folks act like their heads is made out of blocks,” argues the character Big Bubba, played by Roger Howell, a Mississippian. “They just stand there watching it fade. But a man like me, I take the opposite tack. I’ll buy it from you, paint it and sell it right back. That’s why you’re you. But me, I got it made.”

Small towns desperate for an economic base, face such decisions routinely. But in real life, jobs almost always win out over memories and history. “What’s the price worth paying?” said John Shelton Reed, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, who has seen the play several times. “Can you get decent jobs without selling your soul for them?” The show, he said, “could be kind of grim” if that was all it was about.

But it is also about barbecue sauce – an unexpected shortage throws the town into a panic – and hound dogs and unrequited love, as Kudzu longs after the pom-pom shaking Veranda, who chides him with: “Why don’t you call me? Everybody else does.”

It is about strong mothers and absent fathers – Kudzu’s daddy is a travelling trampoline salesman who disappeared 17 years ago – and music and religion and impossible dreams. One of Kudzu’s friends, Nasal T. Lardbottom, is so uncoordinated he cannot even connect on a high five, but still dreams about leaping up for rim-shattering slam dunks.

“Let’s face it,” the character says in a moment of doubt. “Ain’t nobody ever gonna name a sneaker after Nasal T. Lardbottom.”

Mr. Marlette, who wrote the show with two friends, Jack Herrick and Bland Simpson, both members of the Red Clay Ramblers, got to see something most cartoonists do not. He got to see his characters take on flesh and blood.

“That,” he said, “was a joy.”

He hopes people laugh at the jokes and situations even as they get the deeper meaning behind them.

“There’s something about the south, where we’re from, where America seems to come into itself,” said Mr. Marlette, who divides his time between New York and Hillsborough, NC. “The Civil War was fought on southern soil and the civil rights movement. And now the economic energy has shifted south. There’s something about our part of the world that makes America discover its deepest convictions. Its soul is worked out here.”

The character Kudzu embodies all that, Mr. Marlette said, and has to decide if “all things that he sees as bad about himself are actually the things that are special about him, wonderful about him.”

It took years to put together, but crowds have been large and steady as the show nears the end of its Washington run at the end of June.

But even now, Mr. Marlette, the political cartoonist for Newsday, is still not sure what to call it, whether musical or show or theatre.

Maybe he will just call it his story, too.

“My own personal myth,” he said.


Selected Press Comments about KUDZU, A Southern Musical from February-June, 1998

(Reynolds Theatre, Duke University, Durham, NC [Feb. 10-22], & Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC [Mar. 4-June 23])

Featuring The Red Clay Ramblers


"The musical, powered by the guitars, fiddles and piano of the Red Clay Ramblers, an eclectic band that began in weekend jam sessions in a North Carolina cabin but has performed around the world and on Broadway, is also a love story about the South."  -Rick Bragg, The New York Times


"Playing to enthusiastic audiences largely unfamiliar with Southern folkways...with a joyous musical score and delicious satire... the Red Clay Ramblers become the 'Bypass Boys' and occupy center-stage throughout the show, making music under the gas station's neon sign."  -Curtis Wilkie, The Boston Globe


"The show has a big old soft heart, too. But it's the eccentricity of the characters, the absurd plotting and the whimsies in the Red Clay Ramblers' music that make 'Kudzu' an improbably good stage doppelganger for Mr. Marlette's amusing strip."

"This musical would be unthinkable without the Red Clay Ramblers. The versatile band members, who occupy center stage under the neon sign above Dub's service station, wander in and out of the action as various characters."

"An abundantly silly, cheerfully odd musical."

--Nelson Pressley, The Washington Times


"If opening night was any predictor, Ford's Theatre has a winner for the family audience in 'Kudzu: A Southern Musical.' --Belters Beth

Lea as Mama Dubose and Joilet E. Harris as Mazee Jackson were hits with the high school crowd, castigating their runaway boys for minor infractions in 'We're Your Mamas.' When Leavel squinted into the audience, accusing one youth in her strident 'Mama Rose' voice, 'Is that gum?' I can see you chewing. Spit it out,' the crowd went wild. ..Each small town stereotypical character has a unique appeal, due to Marlette's off-center humor and the fine cast, directed by Lisa Portes. ..The energetic music is provided by the Red Clay Ramblers, in character as a hometown band, The Bypass Boys, and the songs are downright fun and li~ly as the choreography by Sabrina Peck. James Youmans set is comic book quirky. ..The show is as amiable as a small town church social."  

--Barbara Gross, This Month on Stage


"One of my favorite bands anywhere is in Washington through June, giving eight performances a week of its singular blend of old-time-country , barrelhouse blues, gospel, bluegrass, jazz, Broadway, barbershop, rock and pop. I'm talkin' 'bout the Red Clay Ramblers, the North Carolina-based group that's been making excellent music for more than 20 years. They're the house band for the musical Kudzu' that's at Ford's Theatre, and two members-Bland Simpson and Jack Herrick-are responsible for the play's generally superb score."  --Eric Brace, The Washington Post


"A really good time. ..truly wonderful songs in the varied and interesting score, which ranges from blue-grass mountain music to traditional ballads to gospel. ..There are also the on-stage antics of the Red Clay Ramblers as the Bypass Boys, who remind us that 'Jesus Was Not An Alien' and lament, 'Oh Lord, what a terrible loss/The whole world's run out of barbecue sauce. ..' The Bypass Boys feature dysfunctional sacred music' and 'radio jugglers."'

 --AI\tin Lin, Georgetown Law Weekly


"An enjoyable, entertaining opening ...What makes it enjoyable is the unexpectedly (to me, at least) effective music of the Red Clay Ramblers."  

"The Red Clay Ramblers' blend of music (which they describe as mountain, country , rock, Dixieland, bluegrass and gospel, but which here seems even broader, extending even as far as hip-hop) provides an engaging anchor for the escapades of the denizens of the fictional Southern town of Bypass. The richly textured quilt this music creates sets a high standard for the synthesis of the new South the other elements of the show must achieve."

-Les Gutman, Curtain Up DC


"This holiday in Bypass, N.C., includes swashbuckling thrills, western adventure and a noir sequence funnier than anything to be found in the Raymond Chandler crime novels. ..'Kudzu' has everything from down-home clogging to tangos right out of the silent cinema, from gospel choirs to a capella quartets. ..deliriously funny ."

-Bill Morrison, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)