Tom Perez is a storyteller. He tells them face-to-face and writes them in novels. He gives them a script, sets, and costumes and puts them on stage for South of the Salt Line Theatre. They are often the stories of his life and the people he knows. Stories of working in the Peace Corps, teaching English in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, dinners at Termite Hall, or growing up with 11 brothers and sisters in Mobile.
“People ask me where I get these stories,” says Perez. “This is Alabama, people tell me stuff and I can’t keep secrets. This is real. YJCMUTS—you just can’t make up this shit.”
Over his gray ponytail, Perez wears a fedora from Meyer the Hatter in New Orleans. The label inside the hat says “Like Hell it is Yours.” He is old Mobile with a warm drawl that rounds and softens the ends of words. He has Mardi Gras, McGill, and Catholic roots and speaks out to protect the culture and character of Mobile for the future. He believes in the power of theater and writes satirical comedies such as “Don’t Frack with Society Shell,” and “Cockroach Hall” to make an audience laugh, but more importantly to make them think.
“If we are going to progress, we have to turn this city on its ear,” says Perez. “Laughing at ourselves is part of moving forward. Our plays bring Ashland Place and Montrose together and make them laugh at themselves. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then how can we move forward? That is what South of the Salt Line Theatre is about, moving forward.”
“Tom’s plays make us laugh because we all know these people. If the plays were about strangers, it wouldn’t be as funny,” says Phillip Tapia who designs sets and lighting for South of the Salt Line Theatre. “He holds a mirror up to Mobile society. I don’t know which is more warped, the mirror or society.”
The name South of The Salt Line comes from the title of Elizabeth Spencer’s book The Salt Line meaning when you can smell the salt air, you have crossed the salt line. “North of the salt line, they don’t like us,” says Perez. “We are different and we are another world. We have Mardi Gras. We had liquor on Sundays. We are Episcopalian, Catholic, and Lebanese. South of the Salt Line is another world.”
“Tommy is in charge of the oral history of Mobile,” says Johnny Gwin who’s Hummingbird Agency helped create the logos and T-shirt images for the theatre. “His plays are about us and he brings out all of our stereotypes with empathy. He remembers the things that we have forgotten and he teaches about our history and culture as he tells the stories. He brings out the nuances and the context to show the recurring pattern and why these stories are important. I like the way he smartly and politely offends.”
Writing began as Perez’s escape from a job that wasn’t right for him. “I was going nuts as a stockbroker and putting children through private school,” he says. “I got up at 5 AM every morning to write before I went to work. I wrote a column called “South of the Salt Line” for the Azalea City News and Review, then I started writing plays. My wife and Eugene Walter encouraged me to quit my job and become a playwright. I wanted to wait until my children finished school. Eugene said, ‘Just do it. You will be dead by then and your soul will be like a raisin.’ I didn’t have money for a stage set so Eugene said, ‘Crepe paper. We’ll use crepe paper and squiggles.’ So I resigned and started the theater in 1985, and it grew from there.“
After five years, South of the Salt Line Theatre ended in 1991, when Perez divorced and moved to Saudi Arabia to teach English. “I asked God to send me a job anywhere, but I forgot to say except Saudi Arabia.” laughs Perez. After fifteen years in Saudi Arabia, he lived in South America and then spent six months in Iraq teaching English to Iraqi air traffic controllers. He moved back home in 2011 to take care of his mother and to fish on Dog River. He did not want to return to the theater. “I was gone for 20 years, but when I came back people still wanted the plays because they didn’t forget South of the Salt Line Theatre,” says Perez. “I changed my mind because there is artistic power and a sense of life force that when it grabs you, you have to do it, even if it kills you. It will kill me, but I have no choice, I have to go with it. It is who I am created to be. Mobile also needs this. We have got to get this show on the road and help move Mobile forward.”
The life force is a theme in his plays. “The life force is within you to be tolerant and see beyond your own world and prevail, “ says Perez. “We must preserve the eccentric, gorgeous culture here that believes in tolerance and a sense of humor. Life is not a float or a costume. Life is inside you. Give me something to love you for.”
Each play starts with a blank page. “Ideas germinate in my head six months to a year before I write them,” says Perez. “Anyone can do basic comedy. Satire is hard, it is serious, and it is truth. I have a gift for the absurd and I use comedy to get people into the theater, but I use satire to make a difference and to make them think. I sit in the audience and I can feel it when the audience gets it.”
“The first time I directed South of the Salt Line Theatre, I did five years of the same type of plays,” says Perez. “I was always thinking about the audience, what they do, and if would they be offended. The plays weren’t as provocative as what I am doing now. Now I have nothing to lose, but I also found that Mobile people aren’t offended. They have opened up a lot in the past 30 years.”
“Cockroach Hall” is Perez’s latest play. It is set in the year 2073 and Mardi Gras has been banned by the Tea Party and Folly has been arrested by the Mobile Police. The characters and setting are loosely based on the Marston family and their historic Termite Hall on Dauphin Street, famous for spirited Sunday night dinner parties with artists and writers. “I became a step child of this family,” says Perez. “I was number four in a large family and I was always trying to be cute to be popular and get attention. But I found this family with the aunts Eleanor and Adelaide who accepted me and I could be myself. I have been friends with members of this family for many years.”
Perez changes the names of the family and the house, but many of the stories in “Cockroach Hall” are real. Adelaide made anything out of brown paper bags, masking tape, and shoe polish. “There was a hole in the ceiling and the sisters couldn’t afford to fix it, so Adelaide made a stuffed Possum out of brown paper bags and stuffed it in the wall,” says Perez. “Guests would look up and asked what it was.”
“It’s a possum.”
“What’s it there for?”
“Must everything have a purpose?”
“That was the philosophy of Termite Hall. Things can be for fun. There doesn’t have to be a purpose.”
“You just can’t make up this shit.”
Overflowing audiences at every performance show that people want Perez to tell them stories, even if the stories are about themselves. “I am doing all I can to make people think,” says Perez. “It is up to the audience to take the ball and get out and do something. We are powerful together.”
This is the last weekend of “Cockroach Hall” at Mobile Theatre Guild. Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8PM.
For tickets and more information: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/527042 or call 776-2733.