If you were making a theatrical version of In the Heat of the Night, one of Hollywoods few memorable examinations of racial prejudice in the 1960s, would you hire a writer who:
• Grew up in San Luis Obispo on the central coast of California, teaches in Los Angeles and has never lived in the South?
• Was born after Heat won a best picture Oscar in 1968, let alone after the Civil Rights Era?
• Is known for transgressive, avant-garde plays with titles such as Cockroach Nation, Honkies With Attitude and Jerry Springer is God?
Well, yeah, you might if hes Matt Pelfrey.
The A side of Pelfreys writing mind does wildly original work. The B side adapts plays for New Yorks Godlight Theatre, whether theyre based on Jim Carrolls The Basketball Diaries (about a self-destructive junkie) or Clifford Chases Winkie (about a sentient teddy bear accused of terrorism).
Godlight commissioned Pelfrey to adapt John Balls 1965 novel about a black detective from Pasadena who passes through a South Carolina town where a white sheriff suspects him of murder and then asks him to help solve the crime.
Pelfreys 2010 drama will get its Southern premiere in fact, its second production outside New York this weekend at Theatre Charlotte. (The other was in San Diego.) Levine Museum of the New South will host a talkback Friday to place the story against the backdrop of its current lynching exhibition, Without Sanctuary.
This stage version will surprise people who recall the movie, where Virgil Tibbs came from Philadelphia and was stopped by racist Chief Gillespie in rural Mississippi. (Hes in Alabama in the play.) Though both the stage and screen versions make their points about race relations, each presents a murder mystery the audience should try to solve at the same time.
You do worry about audience expectations, but its not like the film came out 10 years ago, says Pelfrey. People have some distance from it now.
Luckily, the most famous line in the movie came from the book. The audience waits for They call me Mister Tibbs, and thats in the play. But if it had only been in the film, I might not have used it.
He and Godlight founder Joe Tantalo work directly with authors estates to get rights. Pelfrey says his mission is simply to make the novels more theatrical: Books jump around a lot, which actually works better onstage; a movie has to be more linear. The structure is usually there in the novel. If a book follows a trajectory, were smart enough not to change it.
Pelfrey, a visiting assistant professor at UCLA, admits hes not the first person one thinks of for this project. But he says it was a chance to immerse myself in an experience I hadnt had and make it mine. I trusted what I gleaned from the book.
My family does have some Southern roots: My grandfather grew up in the blue hills of Kentucky, in a holler way off the beaten track. His father was a sheriff I think involved in an accident with moonshiners. Theres some dispute as to whether he was chasing moonshiners or helping them.
Pelfrey is resident playwright at Godlight and writer-in-residence at Furious Theatre Company in Pasadena, his (and Tibbs) home base. If Heat has something in common with his Cockroach Nation a surreal story about a rich guy who moves his family into an L.A. alley to prepare for the Apocalypse its that Pelfrey writes the kinds of plays I want to see. I like stuff that leaves you unsettled and pushes you in a direction youre not expecting to go.
His brush with Southern culture may help with his next play for Godlight: James Dickeys Deliverance, about a fateful canoe trip through the Georgia wilderness. The hard part, he says, will be getting the river stuff right.