Playing Faulkner takes gall, says star of one-man show

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 19, 2009

John Maxwell started his career 60 years ago, as a 5-year-old singing “Red Hot Henry Brown.”

He performed the song again — complete with jazz hands — at Wednesday’s Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, where he spoke about his life and one-man show, “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?,” which is about Mississippi author William Faulkner.

Standing at the front of the Southern Cultural Heritage Center auditorium, he kept Chamber members entertained as they silently sipped sweet tea and finished lunch.

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“And did you notice how quiet everyone was while he was talking?” said SCHC Director Annette Kirklin. “No silverware, no whispers.”

Kirklin and Christi Kilroy, the Chamber’s executive director, had planned to hold a luncheon at the SCHC auditorium and came upon Maxwell, who now works as the drama ministries coordinator at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson.

Maxwell’s mother sang and sparked Maxwell’s interest in music, sending him on stage for his fateful first performance as a 5-year-old.

“That was my introduction to theater,” Maxwell said. “I loved every single … second of it — and I still do. I love entertaining.”

While time and something Maxwell dubbed a James Dean phase distanced him from theater during high school, his involvement in 4-H kept his public speaking skills sharp.

After high school, Maxwell began studying law at the University of Mississippi, but an innocent audition for a play on campus threw his trajectory off course.

“When I put my toe out on the stage, I said, ‘Man, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’” he said. “I was determined this was what I wanted to do. I had a passion for it. I had a joy for it.”

Maxwell’s passion pushed him past naysayers who tried to nudge him back toward law. Soon, he had graduated from Ole Miss with a master’s in theater and began teaching at Hinds Community College.

When Maxwell’s mother gave him Faulkner’s “The Hamlet,” Maxwell resisted, saying he’d read the author’s works in college and didn’t like it. Reluctantly, Maxwell read it, “and then I consumed everything else Faulkner ever wrote,” he said.

Faulkner was born at the turn of the 20th century and is considered one of the most influential writers of the 1900s. The Mississippian wrote the novels “As I lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom!” among others, as well as a slew of short stories and several poems. He was awarded the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature and is often mentioned in the same breath as writers such as Mark Twain, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

As Maxwell learned more about Faulkner’s life, he decided to create the one-man show that has since taken him around the country and world.

“I did not know it would go beyond just a few places in Mississippi,” he said. “And it just took off.”

He quit his job, married his wife, bought a house and set out to put the show to a stage.

“At the time, I didn’t know how outrageous it was,” Maxwell said.

“Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?” began in 1981 and has been in 12 foreign countries and much of the United States. The show covers everything from the “mammy” who took care of Faulkner as a child to the drunk pilot of a hot-air balloon that crashed into his chicken house.

In his career, Maxwell has received a Tennessee Williams scholarship, the Susan B. Herron Playwriting Fellowship of the Mississippi Arts Commission, a W. Alton Jones Foundation Grant for New American Plays, the Best Actor Award from the Atlanta Film Festival and a Best Actor nomination at the American Meth Film Festival in Los Angeles, both for his role in the show’s screen version. He is also a member of Actor’s Equity and the Screen Actors Guild.

Maxwell has written the plays “The Salvation of Sunshine Billy” and “Buck Nekkid” and founded the Fish Tale Group, which brings biblical figures to life in original dramas.

But Faulkner has been his focus for nearly 30 years.

“It takes an audacity and a gall to do that,” Maxwell said of playing Faulkner. “Whether you deserve it or not, whether it’s the right thing or not, if you’re going to do it, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Maxwell will give a dinner performance of “Oh, Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?” at the SCHC Oct. 1. He will also host a creative writing workshop Oct. 3 and perform “Fish Tales,” a monologue about St. Peter, Oct. 4.


Contact Andrea Vasquez at