Three years ago, playwright Darrah Cloud was reading a New York Times report on the entangled FBI investigation of the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church (which killed four black girls). But it was not the subject of the article--the Klansmen suspected of the crime--that caught her attention.
"There was one paragraph about the wives of these men, who'd run a kind of covert operation, informing on their husbands," said Cloud, whose treatise on the subject, "The Stick Wife," opens Thursday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
"I would never have written a play about the bombing; I'm just not into documentaries. But when I read about the women, how they lived with these men--and at the same time were talking with the FBI. . . . How could you live with somebody and hate what they do?
"For one thing, you'd have to play a lot of what I call 'female games.' You'd have to act stupid all the time, like you didn't know what was going on. You'd have to sustain a cover and stay married to this very dangerous person, who might kill you if he found out."
Although Cloud, 31, thinks of these women as heroines (the play centers on Jessie Bliss, a fictionalized version of the real-life wife of "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, ultimately convicted of the crime), she stressed that the wives were participants in their own fate.
"If the guy's so bad, why does she stay?" she asked rhetorically. "The answer is that they're masochists. But look, it's 1963, these women are in their 40s or 50s. Jessie's been a housewife all her life; she's terrified of leaving her house and getting a job. She can't make it on her own. In this case, ignorance is almost a defense mechanism against pain.
"I don't think that people want to be ignorant, though it might look like they do. I think it comes out of another pain, where if you know something, you'll have to act--and you can't act. So you remain ignorant."
And sexism, Cloud said, goes hand in hand with racism: "It's the same muscle in the brain that works them both. If you're going to oppress someone, it's because you think they're less than you. Of course, most racists are the lowliest people, and they don't believe in themselves at all. So they have to make someone be below them in order to feel good, feel higher."
Since Cloud grew up in a very different setting (near Chicago, where she originally studied photography--"but people said my pictures were too literary"), she followed her writing with a firsthand inspection of Birmingham.
"I wanted to see if I'd gotten it right," she said. "So I spent a couple of days there, walking around the town, listening to people talk. The Klan's really come out recently, and you can tell very easily who they are. They wear camouflage outfits, they're very paramilitary and they talk loud.
"There's a sense of depravity--the same feeling of depravity you get around the poor: When people don't have money, then you get that kind of impotent rage."
In contrast with the rural area, Cloud found the city itself "a very sophisticated place. Black urban professionals walking around with attache cases, and everything looked pretty good: lots of high-rise buildings, parks and libraries."
Such research is only the tail end of a vigorous work regimen.
"You're writing into the darkness," Cloud said cheerfully. "You never know where you're going to end up, but when you get to the end, you recognize it as the end. Then the hard part starts: When you have to go back and face everything you didn't see when you were writing. The minute you hear it read aloud, you recognize how many things you missed--human things, even structural things. This play took me two years of rewrites and workshops. After that much time, you do get buggy."
In the meantime, she's also kept busy teaching writing to prison inmates in New York and polishing an in-the-works novel "about a bunch of friends who trade partners over a long period." Cloud asks only to be forgiven for one earlier play, "The House Across the Street" on mass-murder in the suburbs, which, she says with a laugh, "was written when I was 24. It has a lot of estrogen in it."