James Agee has been kicking around RB Morris’ head since the poet, author and songwriter was a young man living in Fort Sanders.
It was during his childhood in 1962 when All the Way Home was filmed in the neighborhood and at the train station where Morris’ father worked. With his family, he attended the premiere of the film, which left an impression that would lead Morris to explore all of Agee’s diverse body of work.
And Agee was nothing if not diverse. Over the course of his short life – he died of a heart attack at only 45 – he was a journalist, poet, Pulitzer-prize winning author (posthumously for A Death in the Family) and screenwriter (African Queen and Night of the Hunter) and film critic. Morris thinks that this diversity reflected a writer who had a unique vision that could be shaped to any medium, even as critics urged him to focus on one particular area.
Of course, Morris has been involved with Agee off and on ever since that fateful day. He started a process to get the University of Tennessee to donate a block of land near Agee’s home and directed a steering committee that gathered enough private funding to make James Agee Park a reality. From 2004-2008, he taught students about Agee as Writer in Residence at the university and he was instrumental at the city wide James Agee Centennial Celebrations.
Agee, Morris says, comes and goes in his life. He puts it away for a while, but the scope of Agee’s work always brings him back.
In the late 1990s, Knoxville Artist Ben Harville, who lived in the same Fort Sanders Artist Colony as Morris, suggested that RB write a one-man play about Agee. The idea took root but Morris was moving a lot at the time. Over the next year in the mountains of North Carolina and the lowlands of South Carolina, and in Knoxville, “The Man Who Lives Here is Looney” gradually took shape. Eventually, Morris performed the play and filmed it and then debuted the film to a sold-out Bijou theater. The last performance was in 2005 but about five years ago, Morris spoke to producers and talked about restaging the play, this time directing. Local actor Joe Casterline expressed interest in the part as did bass player Taylor Coker but the project never reached fruition.
Around a decade after it’s last performance, actor Greg Congleton spoke to the Knoxville Museum of Art and secured a space and approached Morris and, as Morris says, “It came together just like that.” Casterline is back onboard to act the role with Morris directing and Coker providing the musical accompaniment (a single upright bass). Morris says that he always wanted a better recording of the production as he considers the first film almost a demo. “I am happy to work with Greg and the KMA,” Morris says, “but I have a lot of new stuff I like and I wouldn’t have done this except for two reasons. First, I knew I needed a production and a book to get on a good foundation with the James Agee Foundation in order for the play to have a life of its own, to get the necessary permissions and everything. The Foundation has been very supportive, especially when we almost did this five years ago, but they couldn’t give me permission until I had a specific production in hand. The other reason was that I thought the KMA auditorium with its projector and visual system would let us choreograph film and still images and give the play a new twist, a new dimension so we aren’t just repeating ourselves.”
The play itself is roughly an hour long and takes place in one room, with only a desk and a door with the title spray painted on it. In the 1940s, Agee had been living in the country in New Jersey with his second wife. He moved back to Brooklyn to write an article about the New York borough for Henry Luce and LIFE magazine (the article was never published but eventually became a book). The Agees didn’t know what to do with their goat so they brought it with them, causing a neighbor to paint “The Man Who Lives Here is Looney” on their apartment wall. “As soon as I read that,” Morris says, “I loved it for a title.” Today, of course, one can see the door from the original play hanging on the wall of the Preservation Pub Speakeasy.
In the play itself, Agee is never directly mentioned. His first name, Jim, is mentioned twice. That was intentional, says Morris. Regular one-man plays with elements of stand-up comedy and presenting all the aspects of a characters life weren’t what he was after. “I didn’t think that worked for this,” says Morris, “I wanted him to be something of an everyman. Even though the character is based on Agee and one-third of the words are his – I wanted him to represent himself and I wanted to be comprehensive about all the mediums he worked in, literature, novels, reviews, letters, etc. In that way, he can be just a modern writer. He’s James Agee all the way and that’s no secret but by letting him be an everyman he can represent any artist or writer late at night dealing with writers block, considering art and literature and the state of the world,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone has done that, write something that is about somebody, but not presented that way … we deal with all of Agee’s life, time-wise, as if it were the last night of his life and the play concludes with his last letter to his mentor Father Flye, which he wrote five days before he died and never mailed.”
Joe Casterline, fresh off a star turn in Shakespeare in the Square, had worked with Morris before during an epic five-hour production reading the entirety of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues at the Pilot Light. The preparation for this act has been illuminating, he says: “It’s because a lot of the things that RB put in twenty years ago seem topical to me today, questions about art and science and religion and I quote them to my friends. It’s very topical today. That’s why the character is “the man” not just James Agee, because anyone who is an artist knows what it is like to be eaten alive by art and to try to deal with it. My idea is one man alone and his mind is spinning out of control with all these humanistic ideas and how can I deal with this it. That’s where Agee comes in. Now, he looks like a tour de force: how did one man do these thirty different things but at the time he was always being pigeon-holed and fighting it and the play deals with how he answers these questions and tries to build to a certain catharsis at the end.”
“The amazing thing about this play,” Casterline says, “is that the man does interact to ask certain questions, like what is an audience? All these questions are infinite and the play doesn’t really have a time stamp for that reason. RB added his own questions to James Agee’s questions. How can this man who did all these things be alone at the end of the day? A line by The Man reads, ‘But the man just didn’t have the good sense to stick with one thing long enough to make a name for himself’ and that’s a universal sort of feeling I believe.”
The Man Who Lives Here is Looney will be presented in four showings at the Knoxville Museum of Art Auditorium. Shows are: Thurs. Oct. 27 at 7:00, Sunday matinee Oct. 30 at 3:00. Thurs. Nov. 3 at 7:00, and Sunday matinee Nov. 6 at 3:00. Tickets are $15. Joe Casterline will play the role of Agee with musical accompaniment from bassist Taylor Coker. It is directed by the author, R.B. Morris. The KMA holds only 170 people so advance tickets are highly recommended and may be ordered along with pre-sale copies of the accompanying book at www.rbmorris.com