Arts Society & Culture

‘An Encounter with Lillian Smith’ to be presented at UGA Libraries Feb. 22

Brenda Bynum Lillian Smith-v
Brenda Bynum

Athens, Ga. – Atlanta actress Brenda Bynum will present a “Jordan is So Chilly: An Encounter with Lillian Smith,” a solo performance drawn largely from unpublished autobiographical writings by the author. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the University of Georgia Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries. A reception will follow.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of “Strange Fruit,” Lillian Smith’s best-selling novel about interracial love. The performance title “Jordan is So Chilly,” comes from the name of an African-American spiritual and was Smith’s original title for “Strange Fruit.”

“The title calls up for me the image of the difficult times faced by anyone in crossing over to the ‘promised land’,” Bynum said. “Lillian Smith faced so many trials and tribulations in her life and her work it seemed quite appropriate to me.”

Nancy Smith Fichter, the author’s niece, approached Bynum about doing a reading, perhaps from Smith’s published letters, as an event at the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts in connection with the 2013 Southern Literary Trail.

“I agreed and began to read the letters and novels and other books, and then spent some extraordinary time with her papers in the Hargrett [Rare Book and Manuscript Library] collection,” Bynum said. “With Nancy’s permission and encouragement I drew from these and other sources to develop a first-person presentation chronicling her life and the growth of her remarkable forward-seeing awareness of the state and condition of human and social justice in this country.”

Smith championed social justice, drawing both fame and public renunciation, long before the Civil Rights Movement took shape.

“No Southerner was more outspoken in expressing moral indignation about the region’s injustices and inequities during the pre-civil rights era than Lillian Smith,” said UGA history professor John Inscoe, an expert on the 19th century South and winner of the 2012 Lillian Smith Book Award, presented by the UGA Libraries and the Southern Regional Council.

The Hargrett Library, housed in the UGA special collections libraries, holds Smith’s personal papers, which are available for research. Piedmont College owns the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Art. It is located at Smith’s home in Clayton where she ran the Laurel Falls summer camp for girls.

Smith was an inaugural member of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, based at the Hargrett Library.

In addition to unpublished writings, Bynum pulled excerpts from books, letters and a television interview Smith did in the 1960s.

“It is played as an intimate conversation with the audience and is intended to be deeply personal and reveal the woman and the artist behind the icon,” Bynum said. “For me, it has been a true labor of love to bring her back to life in this way and I have been extremely gratified by the responses to her story, particularly from the many people who are hearing about her for the first time. What I want is for her name to be as familiar to any reading Georgian (and beyond) as the names of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker and even Margaret Mitchell. A Lillian Smith renascence is far overdue.”

The event is being co-sponsored by the Georgia Humanities Council and Piedmont College.

Parking is available in the adjacent Hull Street parking deck.

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