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Lifestyle

May 9, 2014

Cullman's Ben Johnson to debut play at Strawberry Festival

Ben Johnson captures the very essence of Southernness in his play, “So Southern; The Seven Keys to Cullman County.” You can see this original play tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the historic railroad depot in Cullman.  The play is part of the annual Strawberry Festival taking place at the Festhalle Market Platz.

For Ben, it all started back in 1994, when he was commissioned by a  corporation to lead a study determining if people in the South were proud to be Southern, and if the company wanted to keep its original name or change it to something else altogether.

For one year, he traveled with a media research firm on a trek that covered nine southern states. They moved from large cities to small towns, asking questions about Southern heritage and identity. The subjects did not know the objective of the study. “What we began to find out was that we were getting the same answers over and over,” he said. “People loved thinking of themselves as Southern and were very proud.” The study cost the phone company $2.3 million. Its topic was, “The American South and the 21st Century.”

It turned out that in the end, the study validated what most of us already know — being Southern is a privilege and an honor and binds us to a hallowed tradition.

From that study, Ben was able to identify what he termed, “The Seven Signs of Being Southern” which became a book. It also gave him the name for his new company, Southernness, which is an online, artsy, apparel and jewelry emporium.

Ben’s definitions of what being Southern really means has held true for the past two decades. He turned the concept into a one-woman play, which premiers as part of Strawberry Fest next week.

According to Ben’s theories (taken from personal interviews during the study) on being Southern, here are what makes us such a special breed of people:

1) Tradition

2) Family

3) Heritage

4) Hospitality

5) Nature

6) Passion

7) Pleasure

“The South did not have Puritans so we are more prone to pleasure-seeking. We dance more, we eat more, we drink more, wherever your mind leads you to pleasure, we do that more.” Ben laughed.

“Cullman is No. 1 in agriculture for Alabama. You can grow anything in this part of Alabama; as Miz Ruby says in “So Southern”, “You can put a thorn in the dirt at dusk and get an armload of roses at dawn."  

There is even a new drink dedicated to Miz Ruby, which is an absolutely beautiful concoction of fruits topped with a pineapple parrot. What could be more fun?  

“Julius Valentine, at the All-Steak, my favorite Cullman bartender, is creating a wonderful cocktail inspired by the main character of ‘So Southern.’ It's ‘Miz Ruby's Rum Punch’. The good life in Cullman is all about adding a bit of pleasure into the ordinariness of daily living,” said Ben.

The star of this one-woman show is Tanya Miller of Eva. Miller has appeared in several local productions, such as “Smoke On the Mountain.”

“I love how engaging Tanja Miller is on stage,” said Ben. “A natural comedienne, she just bubbles up and has you enjoying a raucous, happy, loving ride.”

Ben says that if Tanja were a car, she would be a VW Beetle with a sunflower in the little dashboard bud vase.

The character portrayed by Miller is loosely based on Ben’s mother, the late Dr. Ruby Johnson. He remembers her as being perpetually curious, delighted to be here, and that she looked at things aslant, as did her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.

The author notes that his idea of perfect happiness is sharing a story with a twist that results in a laugh or smile. The play promises to do both. The dialogue is light, witty, and filled with “inside” jokes that resonate from the first lines. Ben plans to take the show on the road, bringing it and other creative projects to towns around the South.

Everyone is invited to see this humorous portrait of “life as we know it.” Admission is free, but seating is limited.

 

The Details

May 9-10, at 7 p.m. at the historic railroad depot in Cullman

For reservations, contact the United Way office at 256-739-2948

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