Sex and the Southern Gothic: Suzanne Vega Channels Carson McCullers

Jessanne Collins | May 5th, 2011

Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (photo by Sandra Coudert)

On Monday night, Suzanne Vega took the stage in a tiny West Village theater and sang a song she wrote long before “Tom’s Diner” made her name in the late-’80s. Plaintive and bluesy, it was an ode to the mid-century novelist Carson McCullers that she’d first conceived at the age of 17. “I can be sweet, I can be wise,” it went. “I’ve got every one of you mirrored in my deep, sad eyes.”

By the song’s end, Vega, costumed in a boxy blazer and knee-high argyle socks, had metamorphosed into the iconic literary firecracker that had inspired the song, offering, in a light Southern drawl, a mild critique: “Not bad…a bit simplistic somehow. But it will certainly do until we have a better one.”

Vega’s one-woman performance, “Carson McCullers Talks About Love,” officially debuts tonight at the Rattlestick Theater, but it’s a project 30 years in the making.

‘I know what you have heard about me,’ she says, pouring a comically huge tumbler of Seagram’s gin. ‘That I am a bit holy terror. That I am a destroyer, cannibalistic, carnivorous, an emotional vampire, a viper, a lesbian… It’s all true!’

Part oral report, part theater, part lounge act, the show tells the story of the writer’s travails in love and literature, but it begins with a bit of Vega’s own biography. Encountering a book about McCullers in the library as a teenager, Vega relates, she was struck by the iconic photograph on the cover. “This was the face of a wise old child, but also of a film noir anti-hero,” she says. “Somehow at that moment I felt she picked me out, tapped me on the shoulder and had things to say to me.”

Vega has spent the intervening decades trying to nail down what exactly that was — she told The New York Times she first drafted a play based on McCullers as an undergraduate at Barnard — and with the help of Spring Awakening composer Duncan Sheik and director Kay Matschullat, it’s at last taken shape.

The result is an LP’s worth of McCullers-inspired songs, simple arrangements backed by piano and guitar, most delivered with prop-cigarette thoughtfully in hand. In between, Vega-as-McCullers narrates, with equal parts wit and world-weariness, her fittingly gothic life story. “I know what you have heard about me,” she says, pouring a comically huge tumbler of Seagram’s gin. “That I am a bit holy terror. That I am a destroyer, cannibalistic, carnivorous, an emotional vampire, a viper, a lesbian… It’s all true!”

She grows up in Georgia in the 1930s, venturing into black neighborhoods where she would “talk to them, and listen to them and wrote down what I heard.” Chronically ill but also insatiably ambitious, she marries young (a “greedy, lazy, drunken husband”), publishes young (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at 22), and sets her sights far away: “Every night I put my shoes at the foot of my bed and pointed them towards New York City.”

There, of course, she finds both critical success — instant canonization — and contemporary companionship at a Brooklyn artists commune, where her circle comprises Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Paul and Jane Bowles, among other bohemian bigwigs. (Though she also grapples with the requisite competitive streak — especially with regard to one Miss Harper Lee.)

She’s the kind of girl that falls in love with nearly everyone she meets: worrying herself sick over the morphine-addicted Annemarie Schwarztenbach, drawing into her floundering marriage the composer David Diamond; throwing herself at the feet of Katherine Anne Porter at Yaddo. Even as her health and her husband fail her time and again, McCullers as Vega plays her as wise beyond her years but also full of wide-eyed wonderment at what the world has to offer.

McCullers’s “tough, truthful and simple” prose — four novels, a book of short stories, a play about the eventual suicide of her husband (an act he tried to include her in) — resonated with Vega, herself young and precocious, who would also bear the cross of early-career success. “When her character Mic Kelly writes ‘pussy’ on the wall of an abandoned building in Columbus, Georgia, 1938, that to me was East Harlem 1968, or any American city today,” play-Vega says.

But it was only in seeing McCullers’s face for the first time in the library that she became consumed with the idea that “I could be this woman.” In watching the legend of a writer come to life in the singer’s body, a viewer feels something similar. For what is more timeless (and timely) a story than the one about a small-town girl who who arrives and strives, loves and loses love in Brooklyn?

“Carson McCullers Talks About Love” is playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater April 20 through June 5. Tickets are available here.