[image-1] When I talked to Keely Enright, Village Repertory Company’s artistic director, last summer, she told me that the company’s 18th season would be both women-based and female-driven. Talking with Enright and the star of Woolfe Street’s play, All About You, Liz Butler Duren, it’s clear that a female-driven season is in full swing. Duren’s play, which opens this weekend, is based on her award-winning book of the same name and tells the story of her life as an adopted child.
“I had been asking since I was 10,” says Duren of her status as an adopted kid. “And for whatever reason they chose to lie to me about it, and then it was 1984 [when I found out], so where do you go?” First thing’s first: why did Duren think she was adopted in the first place?
It all started with a picture: When Duren was 10 years old she realized that a family photo didn’t look, so, well, familiar. In her book, Duren writes, “What I saw was me, standing out, next to three people who looked so much like each other. My pale skin and blue eyes were a stark contrast to the darker skinned, brown-eyed people with me.”
Right then and there Duren, half-jokingly, asked her parents if she was adopted. They quickly shut her down — and she realized something was up. This was something she wouldn’t have confirmed until she was 15 years old, when her parents told her that, yes, she was adopted. That’s when the journey to find her birth mother began. “All my life it was this longing and searching and every little nugget I could get my hands on,” says Duren.
Enright and Duren don’t want to give away all of Duren’s story — that’s what the play’s for, after all. “Liz is an excellent storyteller,” Enright says. “There were so many missed opportunities and connections and the way the whole thing unravels over 30 years, it’s both sad and also really life affirming.” Enright and Duren agree that All About You is a universally appealing story because of its focus on finding one’s self and one’s family — but it’s also a distinctly Charleston, and specifically Mt. Pleasant story.
Duren grew up in the Old Village area of Mt. Pleasant, first on Pitt Street and later in Old Mt. Pleasant. The places and people she references in the book — all real, of course — are familiar to any local reader, bringing this universal story even closer to home.
In fact, a May 2002 Post and Courier article made this hometown story big news when Duren was the subject of a feature story in which she told her story — and discussed her search for her biological mother.
“She is local, she isn’t just some woman coming in from out of town,” says Enright of the impact of Duren’s story. “She describes things that are distinctly the community — the community she lives in.”
While Duren’s birth mother did not live in her hometown, she did live in the state of South Carolina, and before Duren eventually met her mother (not a spoiler, I promise), she got really close to finding her. In her late 20s, Duren wrote to the state for information on her adoption, which she received. The only catch? It was almost entirely redacted (the inspiration for Duren’s striking book cover).
“I ended up taking these documents and trying to figure out what was behind the spot. I was counting the type space, thinking ‘20 letters can fit there,’ so I would work from that,” says Duren. Incredibly, with the help of some friends, Duren did in fact discover the name of her birth mother’s high school and a former place of employment, simply by this letter space guesswork. Duren got close to figuring out who her birth mother was on her trip to this town, but it wasn’t until after the P&C article came out that a private investigator offered to finish up the search.
“People react — it’s a very human story,” says Enright. “We all have the need for finding family. Everything about this story, you can relate to.” And both women admit that the show is even more accessible than the average play; coming in at just an hour and 15 minutes, All About You is succinct enough to keep your attention.
And, Duren imagines there will be even more time after the show for audience members to ask all the questions they have, like: How is it now?
While I can’t give you the answer to that question, I can tell you, from reading Duren’s book in under 24 hours, that her story is beautiful, sad, and compelling. And most importantly, it’s about that most complicated of relationships: mothers and daughters.
As Enright says, “It’s about mothers — what is that? What should that be? How do you heal your own self in a world where you’re searching for mothers and they’re not measuring up? It’s a searching for a mother story.”