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Pilgrimage spoof now on at Little Theatre

Carolyn Yelverton, who portrays Miss Penelope Mayweather and Rusty Jenkins, who portrays Avery Randall, act in the Natchez Little Theatre’s 50th anniversary of “Southern Exposure” Saturday night.

NATCHEZ — Penelope Mayweather has a problem, and she’s trying to keep it quiet.

Living in one of Natchez’s “old pillared shrines,” Mayweather Hall, Penelope finds herself in financial straights. When she is forced to rent out a room to a young writer to make ends meet, her contained world starts to unravel.

With tourists stomping in and out of her family house for pilgrimage and nosy neighbors and family friends clued into her financial woes, Penelope understands the meaning of over exposure.

In “Southern Exposure’s” 50th year on the stage, the starring role of Penelope Mayweather is played by three actresses this year: Yvonne Murray, Tootsie Yelverton and Lynn Mann. Other roles in the play are split between actors, with exception of one. Don Vesterse, general manager and technical director at Natchez Little Theatre, and director of “Southern Exposure,” fills multiple roles in every night’s performance.

“We have two casts because we only have a few idiots like myself who are willing to play all those shows,” Vesterse joked.

Because of the change in casts, Vesterse said some folks like to come to more than one performance.

Rho Baker portrays Australia, left, with Yelverton.

“As director, I tell (the cast) their character should be up to them to embellish,” Vesterse said. “If you see both casts you see the difference.”

Vesterse said his cast members often take artistic or humorous liberties with their characters, ad libbing what the character would probably say or do.

“It does create a laughing moment,” Vesterse said. “The most memorable moments are the little things that people come up with, like adding lines. After 50 years small things like that keep it alive.”

Vesterse said playwright Owen Crump wrote “Southern Exposure” specifically about Natchez.

“It fits in so well for us,” Vesterse said. “‘Southern Exposure’ is our biggest show of the year, and every director that comes in has their own versions. I incorporate humor in everything I do.”

Vesterse said “Southern Exposure’s” script has been tweaked over the years to stay relevant.

“I’ve directed it two or three years in a row, and you try to make some changes with the story line,” Vesterse said. “You rearrange the layout and some of those little changes make big changes.”

The play has evolved in a social sense as well.

Layne Taylor, who plays intrusive family friend Avery B. Randall and serves as Natchez Little Theatre’s artistic and executive director, said “Southern Exposure” was a controversial play at one time. White actors painted in black face makeup played the part of Australia, the maid at Mayweather Hall, a role that is crucial to the narrative of “Southern Exposure.” When that tradition changed, Taylor said the production, and the theater itself, became more accessible to the community.

“It is very important that (‘Southern Exposure’) represents all of Natchez, not just a small group of white people,” Taylor said.

Taylor was the first “Southern Exposure” director to cast a black Australia and black tourists.

“It was very divisive racially, but now the play helps us bring the community together at Natchez Little Theatre,” Taylor said. “I am proud of our diversity of the board of directors and cast. We are able to do very important plays by African American authors.”

Both Vesterse and Taylor said “Southern Exposure” is the flagship of Natchez Little Theatre.

“‘Southern Exposure’ is certainly Natchez Little Theatre’s strongest asset,” Taylor said. “It’s a top money-maker and ‘Southern Exposure’ allows Natchez Little Theatre to produce every other play. Grants, generous corporate sponsorships and citizens are the icing on the cake. I am pleased it has carried on as long as it has.”

Vesterse’s involvement in the theater goes beyond direction and acting. He is also a hair stylist, set designer, decorator and builder, stage manager and prop master.

“He’s a mind-blowing hair stylist,” Taylor said. “I love big hair. We like to do plays set in the ’50s and ’60s when women’s hair was big.”

Taylor believes this year’s Spring Pilgrimage audience and local audience has been outstanding, as the cast plays to a full house almost every show.

“The longer you live in Natchez, you discover we have rich pool of talent,” Taylor said.

Taylor said surprises happen on stage all the time.

“But you don’t want to laugh because it’s breaking character,” Taylor said.

Alethea Shelton, who splits the part of Australia with Rho Baker, is an experienced actress who is participating in “Southern Exposure” for the first time.

“Trying not to laugh is the biggest challenge,” Shelton said. “It all depends on how the audience reacts. When they laugh, I want to laugh too, and it’s hard to stay focused, but it’s fun to see everyone happy.”

Vesterse agreed that trying not to laugh when the audience is tickled can be a challenge.

“It is true,” Vesterse said. “Your old timers will not break down and laugh, but sometimes they have to hold themselves back. It’s a good problem to have. If they do laugh, it’s not detrimental.”

Shelton said her advice to upcoming actors who might want to be involved in Natchez Little Theatre productions is to “go for it.”

“It’s an amazing experience,” Shelton said. “You get to interact with a lot of people. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

Vesterse suggests starting off playing a tourist for anyone who might like to be involved with “Southern Exposure” next year.

“Sometimes they think it’s not a big part, but it’s more fun because all the tourists are cast as three different characters,” Vesterse said. “Being a tourist gives new actors the opportunity to learn their lines, blocking, discipline and rehearsals.”

Taylor said the program has helped enrich lives of young people, giving them a chance to explore their range, express themselves and have confidence to speak.

“Southern Exposure” is at 8 p.m. at Natchez Little Theatre every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday through Spring Pilgrimage and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10. Tickets are $15 and should be reserved by calling 601-442-2233; toll free at 1-877-440-2233 or online at www.natcheztheatre.org. The theater is located at 319 Linton Ave.