By Hubert Grissom
Bowker; 2023
Hardback: $23.98; Paperback: $15.98
Genre: Plays and Commentary
Reviewed by Edward Journey

Flawed Good People book cover

When I was working in and teaching theatre, a question we would often ask ourselves when dealing with a new script is Why is it a play? It was a practical question. We were considering the reasons this story might be best told visually, on a stage, with an audience watching. Would it be better served as a novel, a short story, an essay, an editorial, a poem, a song, a history book, a painting?

After reading the five plays that comprise Hubert Grissom’s collection, Flawed Good People: Civil Rights Era Plays from Alabama, the first answer that comes to mind is that the playwright wants to resuscitate and restore the legend of James E. (“Big Jim”) Folsom, whose two nonconsecutive terms as Alabama’s folksy populist governor (1947-51 and 1955-59) were notable for taking on the fight against the “Big Mules” of Birmingham industrialists and Black Belt landowners, moderation on the race issue, and his way with women. “Kissin’ Jim” was one of his more popular sobriquets; his randy behavior was often used as fodder by his political enemies.

Grissom, a Cullman, Alabama, native and retired attorney, describes himself as a “North Alabama Appalachian-foot-hillbilly.” In his introduction, he states, “I first started writing these plays as an apology, suggesting that not all white southerners were of one mind, one loud voice, that is Confederate-flag-waving, forget-hell, sore-losing potential insurrectionist.” In that way, he is in a tradition of white Southerners whose need for reckoning and exploration of the region’s troubled racial past has been a cornerstone of contemporary Southern literature. In a “Backstory” section at the end of the book, Grissom takes on both MAGA Republicans who pander to their base and the “extreme woke … alienating middle Americans.”

Wedges, the oldest play in the collection, was produced in 1990. The most recent, Winston Drives Big Jim, is the winner of a 2019 playwrights’ competition. Although Wedges has characters called simply “Governor” and “Governor’s Wife,” both are clearly meant to represent Folsom and his wife, Jamelle. Jamelle Folsom gets her own play, Jamelle, Alabama’s Teenage First Lady, a one-woman play with musical accompaniment. Each of the Folsom plays incorporates many of the same biographical details. The famous story of Folsom’s response when his political enemies plot to hire a woman to lure him into a compromising position is in each play: “… with bait like that,” he said, “they gonna catch this old boy every time!”

Folsom, a racial moderate, was open to racial integration and downright progressive in the South of the 1940s and 1950s. The Folsom plays include the time Gov. Folsom entertained Black New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell at the Governor’s Mansion and Folsom’s 1949 Christmas Day message – a moving plea for diversity, equity, and inclusion by an Alabama governor. “Are the Negroes being given their fair share of democracy,” he asked, “the same opportunity of having a voice in the government under which they live?”

Grissom’s plays require historical background and drop many names and references from Alabama history. They cover a time when Alabama voters voted overwhelmingly Democrat and the winners in the Democratic primaries were de facto winners of the election. Folsom’s conflicts with the increasingly racist stance of George Wallace, with whom he was once allied, make for some entertaining name-calling. The Ku Klux Klan lurks in the background of all five plays. Alabamians who are well-informed about mid-twentieth century Alabama politics will be able to follow along. Others may be left in the dark at times. For readers of the plays, Grissom provides almost forty pages of backstory, inspiration, context, and unrestrained opinion at the back of the book. The reader also discovers that the playwright’s sister is married to one of Folsom’s sons – good context to have. I have a particular quibble to register: A book that is so firmly set in Alabama culture should not be guilty of consistently mispunctuating the word “y’all.” Throughout the plays and accompanying text, the word is spelled “ya’ll.” It is only spelled correctly when the lyrics to “Y’all Come,” Folsom’s campaign song, are included in the Jamelle script.

“Big Jim” Folsom, a six-foot-eight dynamo, is an entertainingly larger than life character to put on stage. He was a master of the political art of deflection and his earthy humor and commentary pepper the three Folsom plays. The two other plays in the collection occasionally share the bawdy bravado, but it’s a challenge to match the compelling presence embodied by “Big Jim.” Racial and regional stereotypes dip in on occasion. Waterin’ Hole, from 1991, is set in 1959 in a working-class bar near the North Birmingham rail yard. A mysterious visitor and dynamite blasts become part of the plot. Bapbomb [Code Bapbomb], from 2004, is set in a Birmingham law firm in 1988, around the time new evidence is emerging about the Klan’s 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. A Klan rally and the contents of a locked safe become a matter of considerable intrigue among employees of the firm.

For better or worse, Alabama politics and politicians never cease to be entertaining and James E. Folsom might be the most entertaining of all. It is worth noting that Alabama had a truly progressive governor at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Grissom seems committed to reminding us of that.

Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre professional living in Birmingham, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (