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Communique: "Southern Fried Bitch" - A Vile Woman We Can Admire

Elizabeth Michaels (l) & Celia Rivenbark

Stories by humor columnist and author Celia Rivenbark have been adapted for the stage before - but the latest play with her name on it was written as a play from the start, and with a co-author: Kevin Parker. Southern Fried Bitch is onstage at Theatre Now through July 28.

Showtime is 7:00pm on Friday and Saturday nights.

Listen above to Celia and actress Elizabeth Michaels talk about the show and see our extended conversation below.

Celia Rivenbark:     I wrote this play, "Southern Fried Bitch," with Kevin Parker who was my good friend and who actually had the concept. We came up together with the concept over some beers one night.

Gina Gambony:      So, this is completely new work, not taken from a book?

Celia:             Absolutely brand new. 

Gina:             Celia, tell me about the conversation that you had with Kevin Parker on how this play came about.

Celia:             It's very funny because we have mutual friends. We were watching a Clemson game. I think it was that National Championship game. I had zero interest in it because I'm a Carolina basketball girl, and he's a State fan. So, we were at this party, and we just weren't interested. He says, "You know what makes me mad? The Food Network. How fake they are on some of those shows." And he said, "I think that will be a funny TV show." I was like," Oh!" having been commissioned to write something for TheaterNow for the summer show. I was like, "I think that would be an awesome play for TheaterNow." 

                     He's a funny guy. He's an engineer at Corning. He's super smart but super funny. So, we would meet at my house and sit at my dining table and spit ball back and forth. He's really quite knowledgeable about Food Network, and I'm obsessed with Food Network.

                     It was really good partnership. He understands the fake nature, but it's also very funny. You can watch those shows and inject your own little smart comment - which is kind of how I get through life day to day.

Elizabeth:       You didn't put Julia Child in there.

Celia:             She's a saint. Oh, I love me some Julia.

Gina:             Elizabeth, tell me about Nee Nichols.

Elizabeth:       It's funny, at first when I read her I thought, "Wow, this is one mean woman." But, I really have come to the conclusion that this is a woman who is supporting her-  family and has for a long time - has brought them up out of the Holler. They were dirt poor and ignorant. She raised them up through clawing her way up to the top, giving her family everything.

                     Though she is mean and talks horribly to people, she has really supported her family. You have to give props to people who everything is about their family.

Gina:             Celia, is this character based on you? [laughter]

Celia:             Oh, sadly, no. I wouldn't work in a pie factory. Nee works hard. I'm a kept woman. But, I love that she just said that. Elizabeth knows - I've said this millions of times by now - but I wrote the part for her. I knew that she could bring the nuances of Nee. Because you're exactly right - there is more to her, and it does come out in the play. She is a vile character, but we understand how she got that way. She has a philandering husband. Her children are brats. There's a lot more to her than meets the eye.

Gina:             Can tell me about some of the other characters, the kind of movement that goes through the play -what you want to tell without giving too much away?

Elizabeth:       I have two kids. They're very Kardashian like except for the son sometimes. Nathan is this little, sweet guy who's always high.

Celia:             Yeah, he's super high for most of the show which is good for laughs. He has a lot of really funny lines. Kevin was great because he more or less wrote the male parts. I stuck with the female stuff, and it just kind of was a good partnership in that way. We have, of course, Nee's husband, Nick, who is philandering. He has some very good dialogue. There's a long soliloquy about the gravy train that I think is worth the price of admission. [Laughs] That was Kevin.

Elizabeth:       He thinks it's real.

Celia:             [Laughs] Like Elizabeth said, he has lived off Nee's success. While she's working hard in Nee's Country Kitchen for the Food Network, he's out not working hard.

Elizabeth:       Yeah, because they also have the side business too of selling the stuff from the Country Store there. She's a business woman. She knows what sells and how to sell herself and her family. She has this whole long - thank you very much - monologue.

Celia:             Sorry about that. [Laughs] Yeah, it's very long.

Elizabeth:       All about the branding of your company, of yourself. It's funny, I never really looked at that. 

Celia:             Yeah, so many of these Food Network people, when Kevin and I were working on this, they've all got these huge merchandising agreements. They all have a presence and everything. I think The Pioneering Woman has a huge presence now in Walmart - just shelves and shelves and shelves and it's not just cooking. One thing that I enjoyed writing in particular was making fun of Wilmington's obsession with Guy Fieri when he came here. So, we do use a few real life names from the Food Network.

                     You don't have to be fluent in Food TV to enjoy the show, but it probably does help. There's a character played by Aaron Hunter beautifully, Rose Ravenel, who is the arch nemesis of Nee. She wants to be an Iron Chef. So, Nee conspires and schemes.

Elizabeth:       She's everything I'm not.

Celia:             She's sweet, authentic. But the thing that I'm most proud about this show is I honestly think that there is not a laugh a minute. There's a laugh a second. It is constant, it is unrelenting. The jokes just come Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam. For the first time, I looked around opening night and I've never seen this before. It's the actors that are doing this.

                     They're so compelling on that stage. I did not see anybody look at their phone. I didn't see anybody look around like, "How long is this going to take?" Everybody in the audience was engaged the whole time. I've never seen that before.

Gina:             That's a really amazing thing nowadays because people can't stay engaged for more than 10 seconds.

Elizabeth:       At the end I talked to the audience. I start talking and I point to somebody and then I point to another and this woman in the front was like, "Oh dear God, Oh dear God, She's looking at me." She's looking down, and I'm going, "Hey, look up!"

Celia:             Elizabeth is tremendous at working the audience. She did it last year in the play and another play. She will wind her way through the audience and work the crowd during the show. I've never seen anything like it. It's amazing.

Gina:             That's awesome for that kind of environment - for the dinner theater.

Elizabeth:        It feels that way. Beth, the director loved it. She said, "Let's do it again." I'm like, "Okay. I never know what's gonna come out."

Celia:             I'm glad you mentioned Beth. Beth Swindell is the most amazing director. She is a gift to us for sure. Also, Catesby Jones contributed - who was beloved as a Wilmington singer/songwriter - contributed three original songs that are played between the acts. They're funny and a joy to listen to.

Gina:             Did he write these knowing about the show?

Celia:             He did. I gave him the script a couple of months ago. Catesby being Cateby, he's probably written 10,000 songs. He looked at the script and then, I'd say within five or six days, we were sitting on my porch, and he was performing them on his guitar.

Gina:             Now I do note that, it doesn't just say “for adults” or “mature content.

Elizabeth:       So, it's very adult.

Celia:             [Laughs] Yeah. Well, there's a fair amount of profanity. I do not believe it is "gratuitous," as someone said. I believe that is absolutely spot on. Profanity when needed,

Elizabeth:       And it's how people talk.

Celia:             In this particular environment, yeah. It would have been kind of silly with our characters who are so hard edged. We didn't put it in there unless it needed to be there.

Gina:             I will say that there are studies that show that people who cuss are more intelligent than people who don't. [Not a verified study to our knowledge.]

Elizabeth:       And we agree with that entirely.

Celia:             We were thrilled when we saw that study, actually. I think I may have told everybody my friends.

Gina:             Is there anything else I ought to ask you about?

Celia:             I would selfishly say that shows are selling out. People do need to know the shows are selling out rapidly, and they added a couple of shows that won't involve dinner. Those dates were being nailed down. Tickets are going really fast. My fondest hope would be that everybody wants to see it, gets to see it. So, don't delay if you're looking for tickets.

Gina:             I do notice on the menu that there is fried chicken.

Celia:             Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that! Chef Denise has outdone herself. There's a wonderful fried chicken and there's a homemade sausage stuffed pork tenderloin. The show is so much about food. Nee talks a lot about food - southern food particularly. I think that the menu is a wonderful accompaniment to that.

Elizabeth:       It's very southern. I come from Philadelphia - I was born in Virginia - but I come from Philly. I've lived there for years. So, when I have to say that it's "honey fried chicken wrapped in bacon smothered in three cheeses," you hear the audience sometimes groan for salivate.

Gina:             Elizabeth, do you have a southern accent in the show?

Elizabeth:       I sure do, honey.

Celia:             She's so perfect because it's not hick. She's not a hick - she's just warm and inviting.

Elizabeth:       I love it. I grew up in Virginia. So, I thought I was Southern when I moved down here. Everybody let me know know, "No, Virginia is not the South." I'm going, "Oh yes, it is. It's above -" They said, "No, it's not the real South, and you don't even sound like us. I was like, "Okay, let me get the knife out."

Celia:             [All laugh] That's a little harsh.

Elizabeth:       So far I haven't been knocked for my accent -

Celia:             It's great.

Elizabeth:       - and I'm understandable.