Oxford artist finds many ways to connect

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – Rebecca Jernigan is a boomer, but not in the popular sense.
When she was growing up near Whitehaven, her daddy sometimes worked seven days a week for Illinois Central Railroad.
“Daddy called me a boomer. On the railroad, a boomer was someone who went from job to job,” Jernigan said. “I guess that’s what I am.”
She’s a storyteller, an actress, a playwright, a poet, a teacher, a workshop leader and a hopeful novelist.
And that pileup of labels doesn’t include her work behind the scenes to make community events possible throughout Mississippi.
“She works and collaborates with nonprofit organizations to bring other presenters,” said Diane Williams, program director with the Mississippi Arts Commission. “She helps with grant applications and things like that.”
Jernigan is also a mother, a grandmother, an Episcopalian and an all around good egg.
“She always smiles, every time I see her around town,” said Joe Turner Cantú, director of the Oxford Shakespeare Festival.
Jernigan refused to tell her age, though she admitted “time is gallivanting along.” She’s not 100 percent sure her scattered approach to creativity and community service has been the best way to go.
“You have to ask yourself, How much can you achieve if you go all around the landscape?” she said.
Those doubts are balanced, if not overcome, by the fact that she’s been able to chart her own course.
“I had no background for trying to be an artist,” she said. “You go be a nurse. You go be a secretary. You go be a teacher. But acting and writing? I tried to be that.”
making a living
Actually, she first made her living as a teacher after graduating from Siena College in Memphis.
She earned that boomer title early on. At various times, she taught kids from grammar school up to college in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California.
Jernigan was teaching theater and English at a junior college in Kentucky when she won a grant to stage her play, “Freeway Sunday,” throughout the state.
“The story is basically the man’s point of view then the spotlight moves to the woman for her point of view,” Jernigan said. “It’s about a relationship falling apart.”
The lure of the stage took hold, so she left teaching to act for professional theaters in Kentucky and Michigan. The work also led her to New York City for months at a time.
“I did ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and ‘Steel Magnolias,’ a bunch of plays,” she said. “I was their resident Southerner. I said they kept me around so I would make cornbread.”
Back in Mississippi, her mom was getting older and her son was studying at the University of Mississippi. The call of the South got louder after she broke her foot in a car accident.
“I didn’t want to be hobbling around New York,” she said. “It was 1985, and I came back to Ole Miss and everything else.”
Twin passions
The return offered a chance to finish her doctor of arts degree, which she’d started years earlier in Oxford.
Her studies combined English and theater, twin passions that still come together when she gives live performances of short stories by Mississippi’s finest writers.
“One Sunday morning, I was at Faulkner’s graveside and doing a performance of ‘Shingles for the Lord,’” she said. “A Methodist church choir started singing hymns. I don’t remember which hymn, but it just went so beautifully with the story.”
Her interpretation of Eudora Welty’s work has gone worldwide.
“I do ‘A Worn Path,’” she said. “That’s one of my best stories. I’ve done it all over Mississippi and in Europe.”
Storytelling turned out to be a natural medium for Jernigan, with good reason. She used to sit with her aunt and listen to tales.
“It would be Noah’s Ark or Jacob’s Ladder from the Bible, the ones we all knew,” Jernigan said. “She would tell me Shakespeare. She loved Longfellow. She would tell me Uncle Efram stories. That’s what she called them, but they were the Uncle Remus stories with the ‘Tar Baby.’ I’ve asked African-American storytellers and none of them had heard of Uncle Efram.”
On the go
Time keeps gallivanting, and Jernigan keeps busy. These days, she’s turning a screenplay into a novel, and working on a play about the year she spent as an English teacher in China.
She writes poems that explore family bonds, the horrors of war and one tornado’s path.
She’s arranging storytelling events in conjunction with the upcoming Double Decker Festival in Oxford, while also gearing up to play a witch in Oxford Shakespeare Festival’s “Macbeth.”
With Dance A Story collaborator Elaine Gelbard, she travels to Sardis each week to perform stories for children.
One of the stories is about a black girl who wants to portray Peter Pan in a play, and everyone knows Peter Pan is a white boy. The girl eventually meets a black ballerina who performs the role of Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” so the girl gets a firsthand lesson in life’s possibilities.
“All of the stories we do in that project are stories that have ideas that touch the humanness of us all,” Jernigan said.
Her work with St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s Hispanic ministry convinced her to create a similar program for Latino kids. She and collaborator June Caldwell found Spanish language stories and presented them with their English translations.
“That has probably been done 10 to 15 times in Mississippi,” Jernigan said with a proud smile.
Don Kartiganer is a retired English professor at Ole Miss who sometimes gets swept up in Jernigan’s projects. He’s seen her work and its impact.
“She tells stories with great flair. She has great acting ability. You could say she performs the story. It’s very entertaining for the audience,” Kartiganer said. “The hope is when someone sees the story performed, it will create a desire to read the story, as well.”
Common focus
Her father’s description, boomer, still applies. Jernigan remains an active woman who moves from job to job.
But she’s not as scattered as it might appear at first glance. A common focus runs through all of her activities.
“When my year in China was coming to an end, my boss asked me what I liked the best. I said, ‘That’s easy, the people,’” she said. “The answer was the same when they asked in Michigan. It’s the people you meet. That’s the best part.”
More often than not, the way she connects with others is through one type of story or another.
“Stories are the tapestry of our lives. The traditional stories are part of our shared history – Ulysses, the Greek stories and Bible stories are all part of our heritage,” she said. “Do you know there are 150 or so versions of Cinderella? There are versions in Egyptian. There are versions in Chinese.
“In our culture and others, these common themes give us bridges, so we can reach out to each other. It’s about people. People. Always people.”

Out and About
YOU HAVE SEVERAL OPPORTUNITIES to catch Rebecca Jernigan in the coming week in Oxford:
• 7:30 p.m. Tuesday – Poetry reading at The Powerhouse with Wendy Buffington and Anne Babson.
• 6:30 p.m. Thursday – Storytelling at the Lafayette County & Oxford Public Library with Adrian Baron-Robbins.
• 7:30 p.m. Friday – Storytelling at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture with Southern storytellers and musicians.
• 4 p.m. Saturday – Family storytelling on the grounds of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church with other storytellers. All events are free. For more information, call (662) 234-0550.

Click video to hear audio