Mining some of the same territory as the “women’s pictures” or “weepies” of the ’30s and ’40s (Imitation of Life, Mildred Pierce), Blues for Willadean explores the limited world of Willadean Winkler (Beth Grant of The Artist and Little Miss Sunshine), a Mesquite housewife who is trapped in a passionate yet abusive relationship with her trucker husband (David Steen).
Her new neighbor in the trailer park, cocktail waitress Rayleen (True Blood’s Dale Dickey), adds comic relief, while an unnamed “blues singer” (Debby Holiday) acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, arriving periodically to lend a musical soundtrack to Willadean’s hopes and dreams.
Based on Del Shores’ (Daddy’s Dyin’, Sordid Lives) critically acclaimed play The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Willadean is a personal effort for Shores and his producer, Dallas native Emerson Collins.
All actors from the play reprised their roles for the film, and Olivia Spencer’s newly minted status as Oscar winner (The Help) draws attention to a story based on an admittedly difficult subject.
“I had a boyfriend with a sister who got involved with a man who started beating her,” says Shores, whose plays have been performed numerous times by the Uptown Players. “He would isolate her from her family to the point of locking her phone in a glass case with a key.
“She became a huge activist and started speaking at conferences about her story. I was fascinated by the psychology of someone who would stay [in an abusive relationship].”
“It’s the powerlessness of the bystander that’s one of the worst elements,” Collins adds. “The entire nation watches Rihanna with Chris Brown, and we all wish we could talk to her. It’s one of the most powerful women in the world, but no one knows what he says when they’re alone in a room together.”
Shores had a “light bulb” moment during an episode of Oprah, when a guest convicted for killing her husband confessed the making up is what kept her around. “She said, ‘I would be beaten, but afterwards he loved me hard and he loved me true.’ She needed validation, and the sexuality unlocked the character for me.”
The result was 2003’s The Trials and Tribulations, which garnered multiple awards during its six-month Los Angeles run. During rehearsals, Shores had the foresight to cast both Grant and Dickey, as well as the then up-and-coming Octavia Spencer as Willadean’s best friend, LaSonia.
All actors reprised their roles almost a decade later for the film version, and Spencer’s newly minted status as an Oscar winner (The Help) draws attention to a story based on an admittedly difficult subject.
Willadean’s producer and director hope to address that subject during a series of screenings and Q&A’s this weekend at the Angelika Dallas. The duo will be joined by Jan Langbein, executive director of the Genesis Women’s Shelter, for the “Discussing Domestic Violence” Q&A October 27.
“We feel it’s important for us to get the film out there to provide it as a tool for conversation,” Collins says. “The more awareness we can create, the more we can contribute to real dialogue about domestic violence and have a real impact on lives.”
Blues for Willadean premieres in Dallas at the Angelika in Mockingbird Station October 26 and runs through November 12. Join Del Shores, Emerson Collins, composer Joe Patrick Ward and several Dallas actors featured in the film during Q&A sessions October 26 and October 27.