It's not surprising to hear an old woman talk with pride about her cooking. The seasoned old cook in New Orleans resident John Biguenet's latest play, Broomstick, even crows about praise heaped on her food long ago by people long dead. Starring in the one-woman show, Liann Pattison speaks in a thick Appalachian drawl and stirs a big cast iron pot in her cabin in the woods while she recalls a favorite meal of roast suckling pig. Her father also loved it and its soft, sweet, juicy meat. She also knows some of her neighbors remember it differently. Perhaps it was a little boy and not a piglet.
There are reasons the old woman is regarded as a witch. She's a forceful and funny woman, and she lays claims to profound powers of persuasion. Perhaps she has powers greater than that.
Southern Rep presents the New Orleans premiere of Broomstick at Ashe Cultural Arts Center this week. The Witch tells her tale, and though some of the events are murky, she's got a sharp tongue and certain judgment about a litany of unfortunate occurences and wicked deeds, many of them committed by humans. If the Witch has been strict, her actions also have been fair and reasoned, she says.
"After a show at the premiere at (New Jersey Repertory Company), a woman from the audience asked to talk to the playwright," Biguenet says. "She told me she was a witch and that it was a very accurate portrayal. She wanted to reserve 20 tickets so she could bring her coven the next week."
Biguenet began working on Broomstick in 2009, while he was finishing his Hurricane Katrina trilogy (which will be published by LSU Press in 2015). In the plays Rising Water (2006). Shotgun (2009) and Mold (2013), he recounted the flooding, its physical damages and the toll it took on individuals. Most of it was based on real accounts. Broomstick is a fictional work but still based on common cultural attitudes and misogyny, which are reflected in fairy tales and literature, he says.
"I researched how older women are viewed in cultures around the world," he says. "In many, they are demonized. It's fear. We're afraid of the body of knowledge old women have."
Biguenet cites fears and suspicions surrounding midwifery as an example of women's folk knowledge being held against them.
"They're situated between two worlds," he says.
Even in stories where young women are accused of witchcraft, they are often portrayed as being manipulated by old women, he says.
In Broomstick, the witch's story is in part a confession. But it's full of her wisdom, and Biguenet thought an older woman would serve as a remarkably free observer of the world.
"In some ways, she's positioned to be the freest of all human beings," he says. "She's seen everything, done everything. She doesn't need a man. She has the potential to live with complete knowledge of what it is to be a human being."
But the witch is more folk storyteller than philosopher, and not at all passive. She's frightening when chopping carrots with a cleaver as she recounts a tale of another old woman reputed to have claimed a few fingers. The language in the play is poetic, rhythmic and beguiling like a spell and at times vivid like a horror story.
Biguenet has written many ghost tales, including some in his first collection of short stories, The Torturer's Apprentice. His first play, The Vulgar Soul, about a man who follows no faith but develops stigmata, also touched on the theme of ordinary humans' connections to a greater spiritual universe.
Ghost stories and fairy tales harbor some of the same existential concerns.
"Children intuitively anticipate fear of death," Biguenet says. "The ghost is a way of anticipating something children glimpse in the way the past lives on. The past shapes us in many ways."
The witch sees meaning in everything. Every crimson sun set in the same sky as a pale moon is a sign of something greater. Her unflinching view of a black cat crossing a path and casual mention of collecting the same type of ribbons as those found in the hair of a girl who fell down a well are meant to be unsettling. And entertaining.
Broomstick won a National New Play Network award and is opening in several cities this fall. It recently opened at Montana Repertory Theatre and also opens this week for a two-month run at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. It may be perfectly suited to open a fall season.
"I'd be happy for it to be the Halloween play," Biguenet says.