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THEATER : The Two Sides of Growing Up Southern

June 01, 1995|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sheri Bailey's and Dura Temple's memories of growing up in the South are similar in many respects--but also very different.

Bailey is black. Temple is white. When they became friends 12 years ago in a graduate writing program at UCLA, the two women drew on their childhood experiences over one long weekend to create "Southern Girls," a six-character drama, set in Alabama, that is now playing at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. David Catanzarite directs the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble production.

"The amazing thing is that we wrote independently, but when we'd get together the next morning there'd be these interconnecting themes," Temple said. "We were writing about the same things from a different perspective."

Temple, whose "day job" is vice president of development at United Artists Pictures, has been encouraged by "Southern Girls' " decade of popularity on the regional theater circuit, especially at colleges. "Whole families come," she said proudly. "They're very eclectic audiences, and very racially mixed."

It wasn't like that when Bailey and Temple were growing up.

"Until I was 9, the only black people I spoke to were our maids and other people's maids," said Temple, who was raised in Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida.

Unfortunately, she added, "my experience here was also quite segregated, so that part didn't change. The racism was just a lot more discreet."

Revisiting the South now--among other stagings, "Southern Girls" has played at the International Festival in Charlotte, N.C., and at the University of North Carolina--Temple finds some cause for optimism.

"In the last 10 years, things have changed for the better," said the award-winning playwright ("Wielding Words," "Trails," "God's Blind Eye"), whose fan-flavored period piece "Dream Lovers" will premiere locally at the Zeitgeist Theatre this summer. "But it's not nearly enough. With our play it's important to tell people, 'This is how it used to be.' "

Bailey, too, sees changes in the Virginia of her youth.

"When I go home now, my family's world is still very separate socially, but not in the workplace," said the writer, who attended a segregated school until the seventh grade.

As a girl, Bailey ached to get out of that environment--after high school she took off for the University of Pennsylvania, then headed for Los Angeles. An NEA theater award recipient, she has been teaching modern drama at USC since 1993; her play credits include "Dannie 'n Laurence" (which has been optioned as a film), "Summers in Suffolk" and "Passing," which will premiere in August at the National Black Theatre Festival.

Despite her later successes, "Southern Girls," which had its maiden run at Hollywood's Deja Vu Coffeehouse in 1982, remains particularly important to Bailey.

"It feels good to come back to it," she said. "The college productions tend to have very young casts. These are women in their 30s, so it's a different dynamic. And we're still finding new things. The play itself is very resilient."

And topical.

"It has strong female roles and [presents] opposites in parallel worlds," Bailey said of the piece, which moves through the lives of its black and white characters: as young girls, at 15, in college, as young career women and wives, and finally into the present. "It deals with racism, sexism, abortion, rape, all set against the backdrop of American history. People automatically think we're focusing on race . . . but it's not the only focus."

"Southern Girls" plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. Closes June 11. Ticket prices: $15 general admission; $9 students and seniors. Reservations: (213) 660-8587.

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