Saltillo-native McBrayer eyes Mississippi debut of one-woman show
“Southern Fried Chickie” is a tale of a Southern transplant to California who makes a prodigal trip back home to Mississippi.
The show has also become a matter of life imitating art.
Christy McBrayer never imagined she would once again have a 38866 mailing address. Yet here she is, and she’s brought her kids with her. All 10 of them.
Well, they’re not literal children. They’re characters, and they will be making their Mississippi debut on Jan. 17 when McBrayer’s one-woman show, “Southern Fried Chickie,” opens at the Claude Gentry Theatre in Baldwyn. The show has played to audiences in Los Angeles, Austin, Tex, New Orleans and Virginia, but this marks the first time McBrayer will give her performance in Mississippi.
“If you’d ever told me this in a million years. . . ,” she said, laughing. “Southern Fried Chickie may be coming back to roost. If you had told me even seven months ago that I would wind up with a 38866 mailing address and a house on Beech Springs Road, I would have told you you were out of your mind,” she said. “But it’s really amazing being back home.”
Throughout the show, McBrayer will be transitioning from one character to the next in a repertoire ranging from her grandmother to a fictitious twin sister who is in prison in Parchman, with loads of Southern color and humor mixed into the tale.
“The whole story is a prodigal visit back to Saltillo from Hollywood,” McBrayer said. “I do family and friends. I break the Fourth Wall as I tell the story of this prodigal trip back, from my grandmother who dipped snuff (to the other characters). The band plays “I’ll Fly Away” to family and old high school friends. I really appreciated this review that I had one time from L.A. Weekly that said ‘she does it with cheerful malice.’ I loved it because that is exactly what it is. I love where I come from.”
From where she came
McBrayer’s roots trace back to Saltillo, where she graduated high school in the 1980s. She attended Itawamba Community College and Delta State University before moving south to earn a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her focus and love, though, was theatre. She found herself playing in the Biloxi Little Theatre, where she met a woman who told her she had talent and she knew people in L.A. – not anybody who could pull any strings, but people who could give her a couch to crash on. So, out west she went. Before long she started doing temp work at Disney, got into acting classes, acquired an agent and moved into doing standup comedy.
In 2001 she performed the first version of “Southern Fried Chickie.” She started small, only using about six characters and with no musical accompaniment. Her first show run was at The Complex on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, a smaller theater. Soon thereafter a man who saw her show recommended she take it to the larger North Hollywood El Portal Theatre. After that she moved to the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles.
It was there her show really blossomed. She added music and got a new director, Rita Sheffield, who she described as amazing. Sheffield’s husband, David, wrote “In Living Color” and for Eddie Murphy, including “Coming to America.” They were big proponents of her show and would come to rehearsals and give her suggestions.
“I had a really great contingency of people with this, and they were all from Mississippi originally, so we used to say we had the Mississippi Mafia there,” McBrayer said.
From there she took her show on the road, doing several performances in New Orleans before moving to Austin, Texas. She lived in Austin for about eight and a half years before moving back to Mississippi in the fall of 2018. She said she often got great reviews from an array of critics from much different backgrounds, from Jewish critics to those from an Italian and New England lineage because, as she put it, the themes of family, friends, food and gossip resonate throughout cultures and regions.
Evolution of the show
For the Mississippi premiere, McBrayer will be portraying 10 different characters, whom she likens to children because, she said, she can’t say she has an absolute favorite
“I’m going to have to flat out say it depends on the context,” McBrayer said. “I’m going to act like a mother right now because they’re all my kids. It’s really hard to say. My grandmother is such a sweet poignant one (of her characters). Then there’s the one with the smoking baby. The one that challenges me the most as an actress is the twin sister, Misty, who’s in prison in Parchman from a meth lab explosion. That’s my alter-ego.”
The show has changed through the years as McBrayer has made tweaks and changes. Now that she’s back in Northeast Mississippi, playing before the hometown audience, she’s leaning on her director and Claude Gentry Theatre Manager Amy Bain for guidance. Bain has already lined up a great band to back McBrayer during the performances.
“Each director I’ve worked with has brought some great insight and working with Amy Bain is a thrill,” McBrayer said. “She knows the area well and is so talented. She’s giving me some great insights on how it can work here and what will fly because it’s very different here than in the other cities.”
It’s not that she’s not played it in the South. She’s just not played it here.
“I had a really great Southern following in Los Angeles – people from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas,” McBrayer said. “I think because of the people who had transplanted in L.A. in the entertainment industry in some fashion, they really liked it and got the humor because they grew up the way I did and they love the South and they are entertainers. That worked out very well. I’ve always been scared about doing it here because of it being too close to home. And boy it is home, not to mention that there are going to be people who the characters are based on who are going to be sitting in the audience. But I have found that people really do like to make fun of themselves. People say, ‘Hey, if you want to do a character after me that’d be great.’ Or ‘Which character is me?’ People are sort of liking that now.”
An Austin review once called her show “purportedly autobiographical.”
“It is, but I don’t want people to think that is so completely literal,” she said. “I don’t have a sister in prison. Some of these characters are three or four people in one. But it is very close to heart. These people, even though they aren’t real, they are to me.”
Performances for “Southern Fried Chickie” are set for Jan. 17 through 19 at the Claude Gentry Theatre. Showtime is 7 p.m. each evening. Tickets can be purchased online at www.eventbrite.com.
As show time draws near, McBrayer is experiencing something she didn’t expect.
“I have never thought I could be this excited about it, and I mean just being back,” she said. “It’s surreal with the childhood memories that keep coming back and the new characters I feel like I’ve met. It’s so nice to be home.”