Ah, the big open horizon of West Texas. As painted clouds drift overhead, a luminous sun smiles over a land that sprawls farther than the eye can see. It's Texana at its finest. It's awe-inspiring. And it fucks with your head.
"When you're born in a landscape with very few things sticking up," says Lubbock-born artist-musician-playwright Terry Allen, "you're always wondering what's across this edge. There's something about the horizon, that line. It's terrifying and wonderful."
It's that sense of the unknown that helped Allen create his three-piece "Dugout" series. "Dugout I" and "Dugout II (HOLD ON to the House)" are art exhibitions that feature drawings, sculptural assemblages and multimedia video installations centering around two strange-looking characters: "Man," a minor-league baseball player, and his younger wife, "Woman," a musician born in a hillside shelter, or dugout (hence the series theme). The final "Dugout" installment continues the story of the couple with the arrival of their son, Warboy. But the unorthodox Allen has chosen to share the tale not through another art exhibition but through a play, Dugout III: Warboy (and the backboard blues), set in the Texas Panhandle in the early '50s.
Warboy is an "alien" kid who shoots hoops and plays war in his backyard while trying to explain to the audience his parents, who hail from a much earlier, simpler era and sired him at a late age. "The kid's arrival was a shock to these people's lives," explains Allen. "He's an alien. It's irrelevant whether he walks out of a spaceship or out of a world that doesn't exist anymore. He's just trying to make sense of his existence."
The play will be performed by Allen's wife, veteran stage and film actress Jo Harvey Allen, at the University of Houston's Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre. Selections from "Dugout I" and "II" also will be on view at UH's Blaffer Gallery.
Allen's family is strikingly similar to the one in "Dugout." His father was a minor-league baseball player, and his mother was a musician. Dad was pushing 60 and Mom was nearly 40 when he was born, and it was a jolt to both of them. And yet he swears Dugout isn't about his parents. "They're representative of America, a time, a nostalgia," he says of Man, Woman and Warboy. "As characters to hang the world on, they're pretty universal of that period."
Nor is the play a love letter to Allen's native Texas Panhandle. Allen, who now lives in New Mexico, can't forget incidents such as the time Lubbock residents boycotted any album his friend Lloyd Maines (who'll be performing live music with Allen in Dugout III) produced, simply because Maines's daughter Natalie -- who fronts the Dixie Chicks -- denounced Dubya.
But he can't deny that the Panhandle's -- specifically, Lubbock's -- inherent surrealism made Dugout the weird gem it is. He recalls the beatnik period in rural Lubbock in the late '50s: "There were some coffeehouses where people read dipshit poetry and played bongos and wore berets," he says with a chuckle. "You wanna talk surreal? That's Lubbock."