Thirsty for history, Austin theater group debuts ‘Prohibition’ play

11:00 p.m Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017 Austin360
Megan Ortiz and Kirk Kelso both play characters who are rather closely allied on the side of pro-Prohibition legislation in “Prohibition: A Musical Comedy.” Ortiz’s Frances Morris was in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union while Kelso’s Milton Morris was the leader of the Austin Anti-Saloon League. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN photos

Last year, the latest in a series of historical plays brought Austin’s infamous serial killer to life — a still-unidentified homicidal maniac who preceded Jack the Ripper by four years and terrorized the young Texas city in 1885, leading to the construction of our iconic moonlight towers.

The director of Texas Comedies, the artistic ensemble that produced “Murders & Moontowers,” thinks the play was popular because “everyone loves a serial killer, as morbid as that sounds,” he said.

But John Cecil is also counting on another topic to grab the interest of local theatergoers and history buffs. The next production in the Texas History Series will focus on something booze-loving Austinites will probably find fascinating: how the Prohibition movement swept across Texas, one of the states that was largely in support of banning alcohol.

“The prohibitionists were allied with a lot of unexpected people: suffragettes, prison reformers,” even the Ku Klux Klan, Cecil said. “But they had opposition. A lot of Texas’ German population didn’t support the ban because they were brewers, for instance. There were a lot of violent protests and ugliness that happened, and somehow we made that into a fun musical.”

Set in Austin in 1917, “Prohibition: A Musical Comedy about the War on Booze” draws its material from true accounts to reconstruct, with a humorous tone, the fight between the so-called Drys and Wets over the demon liquid purportedly destroying civilized society.

Cecil has been researching Texas history for the past five years, since Texas Comedies, formerly known as Crank Collective, depicted New World explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s shipwrecked arrival into Galveston. Our state, it turns out, has a number of colorful stories worth turning into Cecil’s now-signature historical comedies.

But he said finding facts about the lead-up to Prohibition — the nationwide constitutional ban of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 — proved to be more challenging.

“We take stuff from original texts, like police reports and newspaper articles of the time,” he said. “The Bonnie and Clyde play we did was completely taken from newspaper articles. We have a bunch of good historical archives (with the Austin History Center), so it was pretty easy to dig up good stuff and write about it. But for the Prohibition story, we had to rely on pamphlets and posters, things like that.”

Those texts, light on words and heavy on imagery, featured another major event that was shaking the country at the time: World War I. As a result, Cecil said, “a lot of the anti-alcohol and anti-German propaganda kind of mixed together.”

The posters often contained one-sentence zingers such as “The Germans brew war abroad and beer at home.”

The propaganda often was preaching to the choir, at least in Texas, where people were mostly on board with a comprehensive booze ban — and had been since as early as the 1840s, when some of the state’s more impassioned residents had first begun trying to bar the creation, distribution and consumption of alcohol.

One of those staunch anti-alcohol supporters provides a lot of laughs in “Prohibition,” Cecil said. The fiery Frances Morris, played by Megan Ortiz, was an avid participant in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an influential organization that believed alcohol ruined families, turning the husband into a destructive wreck, the daughter into a prostitute and the son into a criminal.

As with “Murders & Moontowers” and other Texas Comedies productions, however, the heavy subject matter gets levity. For one thing, there’s music, and it’s performed by a live band of which Cecil, a guitarist, is a member. He and a clarinet player, saxophonist, trumpeter and French horn player will provide Dixieland tunes from the time period “with more modern beats to it,” he said.

The play also has a dream sequence: Schmidt, a brewer played by Heath Allyn, “imagines the 1920s and what it’s going to be like, so of course there are flappers and gangsters” — exactly what the dry years resulted in around the U.S.

Cecil thinks “Prohibition” will catch on with audiences because many of us have stories about the lingering effects of Prohibition. The director, for instance, grew up in a dry county in North Texas, and his mom remembers her parents hiding alcohol in their closet. Texas still has seven completely dry counties.

“Booze was illegal because many people thought it was immoral, but I just don’t think people in Austin see it that way,” he said.

Travis County, it might come as no surprise, remained a wet county almost until Prohibition became law.

View full experience