Actress to channel ‘Strange Fruit’ author

3/28/2014, 6 a.m.

Actress Brenda Bynum will bring Georgia author and human rights activist Lillian E. Smith to life on March 31 in the Schwartz Center Theatre Lab in Atlanta.

Brenda Bynum

Brenda Bynum

The performance, which begins at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Bynum, an Emory University theater professor emeritus, put together “Jordan Is So Chilly: An Encounter With Lillian Smith” based on writings by the author of “Strange Fruit,” a controversial story of an interracial love affair, and “Killers of the Dream” (1949), a book about the detrimental effects of segregation.

Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith

“Jordan is so chilly” is a line from an African-American spiritual about crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. It was the original title of Smith’s novel.

Bynum said she changed it to “Strange Fruit” at the request of her publisher.

Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was one of the first prominent white Southerners to speak out publicly in the 1930s and 1940s against racial segregation and Jim Crow laws. She was already known as a human rights activist when she wrote “Strange Fruit.”

The book was banned in some Northern cities and suppressed throughout the South. Bynum said that while many people who grew up in the South during and after that time know who Smith was, they haven’t read the book, which was banned in Boston.

“A lot of the play is about how and why that happened,” she said. “In the South, bookstores wouldn’t sell it, newspapers wouldn’t write about it.”

Ginger Smith, Emory Libraries director of external affairs, said she is pleased to have Bynum portray Lillian Smith, especially during Women’s History Month.

“As a woman speaking up in support of civil rights decades before the well-known movement of the 1950s and 1960s, she was ahead of her time,” Ginger Smith said. “I hope this performance inspires people to read her books and come to MARBL to look through her papers.”

Bynum became interested in Smith’s story a few years ago when the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts in Clayton, Ga., asked her to put together a reading of some of Smith’s letters for the Southern Literary Trail, an informal tour of Georgia writers’ homes.

After reading the letters at the center, Bynum spent time looking through the author’s papers, housed at the University of Georgia’s Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

She said she found the material interesting and wanted to do what little she could to remember her.

“She was such an extraordinary woman,” she said. “Her name needed to be known.”

Bynum’s program draws from Smith’s unpublished autobiographical writing and from passages in her books.

She premiered the program in April 2013 for the Lillian Smith Center and has performed it several times since then, at Georgia State University and UGA, among other venues.

For the March 31 performance, John Bugge, Emory professor emeritus of English, will present the prologue and epilogue.

Bynum, who retired from the Emory theater studies department but remains active in the emeritus college and in local theater, said she hopes to look at MARBL’s collection of Smith’s papers to see if there is any information she can incorporate into her program.

“It has meant so much to me to have access to original documents, and that’s what these kinds of research libraries provide,” she said,

The Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts is at 1700 N. Decatur Road in Atlanta.

For more information, visit emory.edu.