‘Steel Magnolias’ director brings his hometown of Natchitoches to Massachusetts

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From left are cast members, Ellen Peterson of Newton as Ouiser, Juliana Dennis of Norwell as Clairee, Karen Cavallo of Buzzard Bay as M’Lynn, Abigail Chase of Duxbury as Shelby, Hannah Cunniff of Quincy as Annelle and Stephanie Wells of Plymouth as Truvy.

By Hannah Richardson, Lifestyleeditor@natchitochestimes.com

Hailing from Natchitoches, director Johnny Nichols Jr. found himself deeply frustrated by the way previous adaptations of “Steel Magnolias” had depicted his hometown and the South in general. When the Company Theatre in Norwell, Mass., announced its upcoming production of “Steel Magnolias,” he felt compelled to throw his hat in the ring. “Steel Magnolias” ties the bonds between a group of Southern belles as they support one another through life’s trials and tribulations.

The play served as the inspiration for the 1989 movie of the same name. “This story is the cornerstone of Natchitoches and very dear to my heart,” said Nichols. “I wanted to represent the town’s unique perspective in the most authentic way possible. Directing this play is a way to be at home without taking the trip.”

Johnny Nichols

Nichols was born at Natchitoches Parish Hospital in 1984 to Wanda and Johnny Nichols. His father was a welder who worked on several projects in the city, including the wrought iron fence around the American Cemetery as it was being named a National Landmark and the Church Street Bridge. The family lived on Howell Street then on Melrose Street, and Nichols attended M.R. Weaver Elementary School and East Natchitoches Elementary.

“I was involved in music as much as possible,” said Nichols. “I believe it was the third grade where I was tested and admitted into the gifted and talented program for music.”

He sang in several programs and ceremonies at his school and also played cello and the oboe, and then went on to attend Natchitoches Jr. High School. “I did come from a very musical family,” said Nichols.

“My grandfather was a preacher and he established Lake Street Church of Christ and my uncle, Ambrose LaCaze Jr., took over the church after my grandfather moved.” With a strong background to the church, Nichols and his family did much of the singing, even going beyond the church to around the state and other surrounding states. At NJHS, Nichols played on the basketball team and was a member of the band at Natchitoches Central High School.

He played on the drum line for two years, then became the Drum Major, the student leader of the band. With dreams of becoming an orchestra director, Nichols became the apprentice of NCHS Orchestra Director Syll-Young Olson.

“She taught me so much- how to conduct, where to look and how to cue. She was one of my biggest inspirations,” he said. After his high school graduation, Nichols attended ULM in Monroe and American University in D.C. He remembers his time in Natchitoches fondly. He was involved in little league baseball and also participated in the Beautillion pageant.

“My family was an active family around town,” said Nichols. “Everyone in town knew who we were because of the long history we had. We expanded our circle and became really close with a large number of people in Natchitoches.”

Nichols also recalls singing backup for Rodney Harrington’s band during a festival to commemorate Jim Croce, who passed away in a plane crash in 1973 in Natchitoches. “That was really cool; I think it was my first huge performances in front of a public crowd.” Nichols, in the third grade, participated in a painting contest in town.

“I didn’t know what I was doing; I just depicted my grandmother who lived in Colfax. I painted us at her house in the middle of nowhere on five acres of land, just small town country life that we loved to visit. I ended up winning and, unbeknownst to me, it was the Clementine Hunter painting contest. They were amazed at how my drawings looked like Clementine Hunter’s. I had that same inexperienced type of artistic ability, though it wasn’t as artistic on my end; I was just bad at it. My painting was hung at the old courthouse for some time.”

Nichols also did a lot with Northwestern State University, working with their band and choral department and enjoyed his time in their halls as a high schooler. “I love the town, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this show,” said Nichols. “I would see ‘Steel Magnolias’ being done in such an awful way, making a caricature of not only the south but of Natchitoches. I wanted to do it justice and it was always on my bucketlist of things to direct and I found this opportunity in Norwell.” Nichols has lived in Boston for the last five years, with Norwell being a suburb of Boston.

“I’ve been working in theatre for quite some time, as an actor, as a choreographer, a director and a music director. I’ve directed over 50 shows in my lifetime. I’m only 35 so I look forward to doing a lot more,” he said. He balances his life in theatre with law school and is also a full-time high school music and theatre teacher. Director Nichols’ personal touch is evident throughout the production. Beyond bringing the clever banter and hilarious moments to life, he and the cast have explored the deeply moving life challenges the play presents.

Nichols will even call a friend or two from Louisiana during rehearsal and have them pronounce certain words or phrases for the actresses. “It’s funny because when I have to call the tourism department for help with some aspects of the show and I talk to people from Natchitoches, I’m so accustomed to that accent that I don’t hear an accent. But whenever I hear those in the show do this crazy accent, I can tell a huge difference. I can tell this is not the way people talk in Natchitoches. I did a lot of coaching with the actors in my show about what accents should sound like, the speed and the tempo.” Nichols worked closely with the cast to make sure locations were authentically pronounced, such as “Zwolle” being Zo-wall-e and “LSU” as El-Es-CHU.

“We also unpacked who we are as a people and how we still have these customs that are very true and authentic. I was talking with ‘Clairee’ and I told her that someone of her age, especially of her position, would always cross (her legs) at the knee or at the ankle. That’s just what you would do and that’s what I would always see, these customs that are very important to the south- how we act, how we dress and how we present ourselves. We broke down who Truvy is, being the very friendly person she is supposed to be. We’re all very friendly.” Nichols said after living in Boston, New York, D.C. and Texas, it shocks him coming back home seeing how friendly people are.

“If I go to a counter to check out at a store, I better be prepared to have a small conversation!” he said. “That doesn’t happen outside of Louisiana really. People are there to be happy and love each other. It’s a very close bond of people and that’s who we are. Yes, Natchitoches has its problems, but for the most part I think Natchitoches is a very cohesive community.” The set replicates the actual garage where Truvy had her salon off her house and Nichols has provided local posters and other decor to add to the set dressing. “When I saw what others put on their set of “Steel Magnolias,” it didn’t represent the authenticity of Natchitoches. They have the most ridiculous things as though we lived in the dark ages in the 80s. It was almost akin to the Deep South in the early 1920s.

They had these wells on the outside, décor that was southern but not Natchitoches southern. Even the costumes, that were flamboyant in a way, were just overdone with what they thought the southern life was like. We don’t walk around all day every day in overalls. We had normal clothes!” Nichols also made sure the cast and production crew were introduced to Louisiana cooking to ensure they were immersed in authentic Southern cuisine. Dishes of alligator, crawfish and Natchitoches’ other claim to fame, meat pies, were flown in and prepared by Johnny. “They had a ball,” he said. “They loved it and they realized how great southern food is because at the funeral (in the play), they talk about how the food will bring people together. Anytime they’re talking about a community event, they’re talking about food. Food is a huge staple in Natchitoches, especially the meat pies when it comes to gatherings. It brings us all together. The cast has a unique perspective now on the Natchitoches community and are able to give the show a little more justice.” “Johnny’s connection to the story is apparent in every detail of the production,” said president and co-founder Zoe Bradford. “His enthusiasm for his hometown, and all things uniquely southern, has inspired the cast and crew.

His passion for storytelling combined with his down-home sensibility is sure to be entertaining, as wit and wisdom come to life on stage.” Steel Magnolias opens in Norwell Friday, Feb. 7 and runs through Sunday, Feb. 16. There are evening and matinée performances available. Tickets are $30. For a complete list of show times, to purchase tickets or for more information, visit www.companytheatre.com or call the box office at 781-871-2787.