Room 220’s Picks: The 2019 Tennessee Williams Festival


Now a sprightly thirty-three years old, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival returns next week (March 27-31) to the Crescent City, having aged as well as a fine wine. One of New Orleans’ flagship literary events, TWF continues its celebrated tradition of bringing new and established poets, writers, actors, historians, and advocates together for a five-day weekend chock full of events.

Returning, as always, are theatrical performances, walking tours, panels, workshops, and sessions on craft and publishing—the bread and butter of the festival. The same is true of the annual scholars’ conference, and the closing event, the celebrated Stanley and Stella shouting contest in Jackson Square. New this year, however, are more venues outside its traditional home in the Vieux Carre, such as the new Southern Rep Theatre on Bayou Road and the Ace Hotel in the CBD. New, too, is the focus on emerging drama: premiering alongside Williams’ own works (as usual) are a new play called Azul by New Orleans native Christina Quintana, and an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

As one of the best chances all year long to meet, mingle, listen, and learn with today’s literary greats, Room 220 encourages bookworms in the area to soak up as many literary offerings next weekend as possible, but for those whose spare time is more strictly budgeted, we’ve picked out a few events that we consider must-sees. More information about the festival (including the full program) are available at Panel passes are required for most events; note that as in years past, workshops, master classes, and performances are extra.

Room 220 Editor’s Picks

Wednesday, March 27

• Opening night: theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Famously difficult to port to stage or screen, New Orleans’ most beloved comic novel enjoys its latest attempt at adaptation by Williams scholar Kenneth Holditch (known for his TWF walking tours) and Francine Segal. Our curiosity is piqued. George and Joyce Wein Jazz and Heritage Center, 7pm (performance at 8pm).

Thursday, March 28

• A yearly highlight of TWF are its Thursday writing classes; this year, instructors from the New Orleans Writing Workshop and the Peauxdunque Writing Alliance, as well as noted novelist Bernice McFadden, offer lessons in craft, dialogue, and community, among other topics. Historic New Orleans Collection, various times.

• Meet the man before he was legend: Thursday night, Tennessee Williams becomes simply Tom once more, as festival participants read from Williams’ earliest works, including those when he was a pretentious (if precocious) teen. What better entertainment could one imagine? Jazz Museum at the Old Mint, 7.30pm.

• Several years ago TWF merged with its the sister festival, Saints and Sinners, to ensure a greater impact. Among the first Saints and Sinners offerings this year is a poetry slam, storytelling night, and drag show at the Ace Hotel, with prizes awarded for best poems in the slam. Sure to be spectacular. 7pm.

Friday, March 29
• One of the most talented novelists working today, Michael Cunningham requires no introduction. The author of The Hours and Specimen Days joins the festival for a craft session on the origins of stories, something the Pulitzer Prize-winner knows a thing or two about. Sure to sell out, so book early—though sometimes they let folks squeeze in at the back of the room. HNOC, 10.30am.
• Nobody wants to win the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award, but somebody has to. Don’t let it be you. Take in the TWF discussion—“Is Sex Necessary? And If It Is, How To Write A Great Sex Scene”—led by four experienced fiction writers, New Orleans’ own Nathaniel Rich among them, and lower your risk of winning that prize. Hotel Monteleone, 1pm.
• Unless you can be in two different places at once on Wednesday night, wait until Friday to attend the world premiere of Christina Quintana’s Azul, a meditation on time, history, place, and memory through the mind of an elderly Cuban expatriate. Southern Rep Theater, 7.30pm.
• Val Kilmer as Mark Twain? Val Kilmer as Mark Twain! Enough said. Joy Theater, 8pm.

Saturday, March 30

• Now that the tricentennial of New Orleans’ founding is over, its many different observances feel like a fading dream. But one vital work continues to make waves months later: Jason Berry’s new work of cultural history, City of a Million Dreams. Berry will read from his book as well as screen portions of his documentary in progress. HNOC Williams Research Center, 10am.
• To those who say genre writing is back, we say it never left. Different panels on YA fiction and on detective/mystery fiction illuminate the risks, rewards, and requirements of working within genre lines. Expert writers share what they’ve learned and offer advice on those looking to enter that market. Muriel’s Jackson Square, 11.30am and 1pm.
• For those in search of Williams himself, Saturday holds the majority of panels, discussions, and stagings of Tennessee’s works. Check the full program for details, but set aside time for biographical, literary, and theatrical explorations of his life and works (various times and places). Cap it off with a performance of Suddenly Last Summer at 8pm.

Sunday, March 31

• Skip church or brunch or yoga or whatever is you do on Sunday mornings, and spend an hour with two master humorists, Julia Reed and Roy Blount, Jr. These festival regulars never fail to enthrall and delight the crowd with their down-home storytelling and mordant wit; arrive early to get a seat. Hotel Monteleone, 10am.
• Few issues are more topical or polarizing today than immigration. Through imagination, empathy, curiosity, and wonder, books enable us to cut through the rhetoric and the fear to more fully understand the plight of peoples in motion. David Johnson moderates a panel of four experts on New Orleans and the immigrant experience, coming from very different historical, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Not to be missed. Hotel Monteleone, 11.30am.
• Be there or be square. Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, Jackson Square, 4.15pm. If you, too, care to rip off your shirt and drop to your knees and scream, arrive well in advance to get your name on the list. Don’t be shy—Tennessee is waiting!