Dallas — New Orleans-based performer Veronica Russell brings her solo show A Different Woman: A True Story of Texas Childhood, a scathing account about the early days of school teacher and journalist Gertrude Beasley, to the 2014 Dallas Solo Fest.
Russell’s introduction to and then subsequent tracking down of her source material could make a play all by itself.
Edna Gertrude Beasley was a graduate of Hardin-Simmons College in Abilene, Texas, approximately 100 years ago. She taught school in West Texas and Chicago, and later traveled the globe as a journalist, radical socialist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. In 1925 she wrote a controversial autobiography published in Paris called My First Thirty Years.
The publisher, Contact Editions Press, was the same press that put out works by Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Beasley’s book received a positive review by one of America’s best-known critics, H. L. Mencken, who called it “the first genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash.”
“Thirty years ago,” the book began, “I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape, being carried during the prenatal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting from the womb only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied…”
She went on to describe her hardscrabble dirt-poor early years in Abilene with memories of abuse, attempted rape and other explicitly gruesome and lurid details. Its violent and sexually deviant content caused it to be banned in Britain, where Beasley was living at the time. Most copies were destroyed by Scotland Yard and U.S. Customs. The few that made it to Texas were mostly yanked off shelves by the Texas Rangers, probably on the orders of prominent Texans maligned in her book.
Then in early 1928, at age 35, Gertrude Beasley sailed back from Britain and vanished from history, as far as anyone knew. No one had been able to trace her whereabouts since.
In the early 2000s Veronica Russell, a Texas transplant living in New Orleans picked up a copy of Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology. It included selections from My First Thirty Years. Russell was hooked.
“It wasn’t just what she wrote, but how she wrote it. It was her feminism, her fierceness, and her fatalistic sense of humor that really carry the work,” says Russell. “Especially the dark humor. It was so funny in that deadpan Texas way.”
She read a passage of Beasley’s story soon after for a friend’s benefit and the suggestion came up that Russell should turn the provocative tale into a one-person show. Russell was inspired by the idea, but had not read the full book yet; she didn’t even know where to get a copy of the full book. It was out of print. Thus began her search.
After a long and sometimes futile search she located a grainy Xerox copy furnished for perusal from the library at Texas Woman’s University. She knew she couldn’t create a show and tour it if she didn’t actually own a proper copy so the search continued. She eventually located a limited edition reprint that Larry McMurty had coordinated for the Book Club of Texas (founded here in Dallas in 1929 by Stanley Marcus). It cost her a sizeable amount, but she had her copy.
She got the show up on its feet. The next step was to get permission from Beasley’s surviving relatives.
“I was really nervous that they would say no,” says Russell “Luckily, they liked the project.” Russell received their blessing.
She took the production to the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival and then performed it at fringe fests all across Canada. This appearance at the Dallas Solo Fest will be the first time for the piece in Texas.
A few years ago, while Russell was in Canada she stumbled into a pleasant surprise. In a small town in Ontario, outside Toronto, Russell located a research center devoted to the British thinker and social critic Bertrand Russell.
“It was such a surprise. They had Bertrand Russell’s whole library there,” says Russell (no relation to Bertrand). “They brought it out to me and there it was, an original copy of Gertrude’s book.”
Russell, at last, was able to hold in her own hands that first rare edition of Beasley’s book. “It even had a signed inscription to her friend, Bertrand Russell, in the front.”
“There it was in this little town in Canada. It was like finding an original copy of Candide in some place like Tulsa—just completely, wonderfully unexpected.”
» A Different Woman: A True Story of Texas Childhood is performed at the Dallas Solo Fest in the Margo Jones Theatre at the following times:
- Thursday, May 22, 7:30 p.m.
- Friday, May 23, 9 p.m.
- Saturday, May 24, 10:30 p.m.
» To see a full festival schedule, go here