History of the MS Delta Tennessee Williams Festival

Panny and Barbara Carpenter_from Stuart.
Panny and Barbara Carpenter_from Stuart.

Alice Walker on Panny's porch with Johnny McPhail in a scene from Cat / Photo by Panny Mayfield
Alice Walker on Panny's porch with Johnny McPhail in a scene from Cat / Photo by Panny Mayfield

TW Fest 2020 photos_Jen in front of the
TW Fest 2020 photos_Jen in front of the

Panny and Barbara Carpenter_from Stuart.
Panny and Barbara Carpenter_from Stuart.

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     The MS Delta Tennessee Williams Festival (MDTWF) was founded by Coahoma Community College (CCC) in 1992 under the leadership of Dr. Vivian Presley, president of CCC from 1992 to 2013, with a $10,000 grant award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Clarksdale journalist/photographer Panny Mayfield, who was a part-time consultant for the Mississippi Arts Commission at the time, assisted Dr. Presley in writing the grant and has remained heavily involved ever since. 

     During the planning process in 1992, CCC utilized three key people to serve as consultants to help establish the festival. They included Dr. Ann Abadie, who was a member of the committee that planned the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi which opened in 1977 and who also served as the Center’s longtime associate director; Dr. Kenneth Holditch who was a professor at the University of New Orleans and had expertise in both Mississippi Literature and Southern Literature; and Professor Greg Boyd who was the theatre director at Shelby State in Memphis, now known as Southwest Tennessee Community College.  Other scholars who served over the years as part of an unofficial advisory team included Dr. Colby Kullman of the University of Mississippi, Dr. Ralph Voss of the University of Alabama and American Theatre Director Erma Duricko.

     Key members of CCC's Tennessee Williams Festival team in the early years included Dr. Hazeltine Fouce, Vanessa Long, Yvonne Stanford, Charles Reid, Jerone Shaw, Rita Hanfor, Henry Dorsey, Marilyn Starks, Florence Lucas, and Cheryl Barnes. CCC's strong support for the festival continues today through the leadership of CCC’s current president, Dr. Valmadge Towner, and his faculty and staff. 

     The long-running success of the festival has also been ensured by active involvement and support from many local organizations including the City of Clarksdale and Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, the Carnegie Public Library, the Clarksdale Woman’s Club, the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce and the Coahoma County Tourism Commission. It is true that the MS Delta Tennessee Williams Festival has called on many volunteers from the Clarksdale/Coahoma County community over the last 27 years, but initial efforts by local women including Eva Connell, Judy Flowers, Betty Gorsenger, Martha James, Betty Sue Maynard and Tana Pittman Vassel truly gave the festival a firm foundation to grow on, and we are so grateful for their involvement.

 

     In 2017, Panny Mayfield stepped down as lead organizer for the festival leaving a hole that has been hard to fill. She remains very active with the festival planning and serves as it's key advisor and director emeritus.

     New York theatre teacher and Tennessee Williams historian Karen Kohlhaas, who established the Tennessee Williams Rectory Museum in Clarksdale, collaborated with Jen Waller, director of the Coahoma County Higher Education Center/Cutrer Mansion owned by Coahoma Community College, to organize and produce the 2018 and 2019 festivals.

     In 2020, Dr. Matt Foss of the University of Toledo stepped up to take on the role of artistic director while Jen Waller still serves as the project director for Coahoma Community College.  Kohlhaas, who is working on a documentary film about Tennessee Williams in the MS Delta, is still involved with the festival assisting with marketing and communications while serving in an advisory role as needed.