There’s something arresting about the black and white portraits of Carson McCullers that grace the book jackets of her work. Here’s a woman with a penchant for button downs, trousers and loafers in the 1930s, way before it was acceptable. She often looks forlorn, with cigarette in hand, or is manically cheerful, in open-mouthed laughter.
It was one of these haunting photos that first caught singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega’s attention, when she was in high school. More than 30 years later, Vega is paying homage to the southern literary wunderkind in a new play, Carson McCullers Talks About Love.
It’s a bit of an unlikely pairing: Grammy award winning musician best known for her 1981 acappella hit “Tom’s Diner”; famous author of The Ballad of The Sad Cafe and The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, who died at the age of 50 after a lifetime of physical ailments. As the New York Times notes in their article about the new play, though, Vega has a striking physical resemblance to McCullers, which has sparked an affinity between the two. “I just felt some connection with the face,” Vega says of the moment in high school when she stumbled upon McCullers’ biography. “Her face looked like photographs of myself as a young girl.”
People have long been fascinated by Carson McCullers: Her dark writing peppered with outcast characters; her eccentric life (she counted among her friends Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and W.H. Auden). What’s more, there’s a hotly contended whiff of lesbianism to her experiences, as McCullers entertained several infatuations with women over the years. Most famously, she lusted after fellow writer Katherine Anne Porter, and once threw herself in front of Porter’s door at the Yaddo Colony in a fit of passion. (Porter, also famously, reportedly opened her door and merely stepped over McCullers’ sulking body on her way to dinner. Talk about rejection!)
Carson (R) with photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe
Vega, who has spent decades revisiting and revising the play of McCullers’ life that she first wrote as an undergraduate, strives for an authentic voice in representing the great literary figure. “At first I was approaching this play like a revue,” she tells the Times. “Comedy and stories and songs, and if you make the audience laugh, great. But after one workshop, my husband said, ‘If I’d known there were going to be attempted suicides and remarriages and stuff, I would have paid more attention.’ So I thought, maybe I need to structure this into more of a real story.” It’s yet to be seen if McCullers’ sapphic leanings will be included in this story, but one could hope that in a complete portrait, they’re given proper attention.
Fans of Suzanne Vega will enjoy that the play is comprised of many songs she’s written to tell the story of McCullers’ life. Duncan Sheik, who penned songs for the smash Broadway hit Spring Awakening, helped in the process. The play got its first litmus test for authenticity when Vega performed it at the annual Carson McCullers symposium in McCullers’ native Goergia. “There were all these hard-core fanatics there, and I was terrified, and we got a standing ovation.” she says. “I thought, ‘If we can win this crowd over, then nobody in New York can say anything to me.’ “
McCullers’ life is slated to receive more limelight, with out writer Sarah Schulman working on Lonely Hunter, a screenplay adapted from her own biographical McCullers’ play, Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate), which was produced in 2002.
Vega believes if there was ever an audience who could appreciate Carson McCullers’ life, it’d be the audience living now. “I think people understand her more than they might have 30 years ago because of the alternative sensibility, people who tattoo or pierce themselves,” she says. “[McCullers] was sort of an alternative personality before that phrase was coined. She had this global vision of human rights for all kinds of people, and we have more of that global consciousness now.” Whether or not fans would agree with Vega, they’ll most likely be happy to see McCullers’ life and work center stage again.