On April 6, 1998, country icon Tammy Wynette passed away in her sleep at the young age of 55. Wynette lived a complex life, with four divorces and four children. However, her soulful vocals and ability to tell a story through song cemented her position as a country music icon. Me & Tammy, an original play written by Triangle Productions’ founder and owner Donald Horn, is occurring in NE Portland until Feb. 18.
The show opens on the eve of Wynette’s death in the dressing room of distraught Tammy Wynette drag impersonator John, played by Jeremy Anderson-Sloan. John, unsure of whether or not he has the heart to perform as Wynette while grieving the death of his idol, is greeted by a shocking visitor—the ghost of Tammy Wynette, played by Danielle Valentine.
What ensues is a tender, music-filled conversation where Wynette tells John the real story of her life—the story of an ambitious, loving young woman with a persevering gift for expressing deep emotions through song.
“I really got to know Tammy Wynette, who I didn’t know a ton about before starting the show,” Anderson-Sloan said. “I really realized that everyone has their own story.”
During the play, Wynette talks about how her hit songs “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Stand by Your Man” were widely misinterpreted. While the feminist movement harshly criticized “Stand by Your Man” for purportedly encouraging women to remain submissive to their husbands, Wynette explains to John that it was merely a love song—a love song she wrote in just 15 minutes. “She says, ‘I know why I sang it,’” Horn said. “‘It wasn’t because I wanted a hit—it was because this song had meaning behind it.’ That means a lot to me because we’ve all got a past that we try to cover up, and we’ve all got stories we don’t want to tell.”
Wynette regales John with her own version of her storied life, which sheds light on the persevering spirit at the heart of her success. From her childhood picking cotton in rural Mississippi to her rollercoaster marriage to her third husband, fellow singer and eventual collaborator George Jones, Wynette’s version of events contrasts the tragic picture painted by the media.
Instead, Wynette’s side of her story gives a glimpse into the strength and resilient attitude that allowed her to succeed and likely pushed her to leave several marriages, even if the social taboos surrounding divorce at the time made that tricky. Despite her immense success, she never forgot her roots—she even kept a crystal bowl full of cotton in her dressing room as a reminder of where she began. “I’m impressed because I would not have been nearly as bold as she was,” Valentine said. “Like being willing to leave your husband in a time where [women] didn’t leave their husbands. That was a really big deal back then.”
The boldest and, eventually, most lucrative decision of Wynette’s career was also a controversial one. In 1966, newly-divorced Wynette moved herself and her three young daughters to Nashville with the hopes of making it big in the music industry. This risky decision resulted in a deal with Epic Records, which marked the beginning of her immense success. Even when Wynette was topping the charts, she struggled with missing out on aspects of her daughters’ lives—a sentiment Wynette explored in her heartbreaking song “Dear Daughters.”
“Juggling being a parent with a career, that’s something I can relate to,” Valentine said. “Do I do what I really love, or be with who I really love right now? That can be a little tough sometimes.”
Horn hopes all attendees get a message that matters from their productions. “I don’t want to put on a show just because it’s a hit someplace else,” Horn said. “I want heart in a show. I want it to matter.”
With drag being such a hot topic among right-wing politicians in the media these days, it is curious that Horn chose to do a play starring a drag impersonator. However, Horn is unbothered by the potential media attention.
“Drag has been around since day one in the theater community,” Horn said. “I thought it would be interesting to tell this story differently. Why not have somebody who doesn’t know [Tammy Wynette] very well, or thinks he knows her, get to know her more?”
Horn, who has written plays about a wide array of cultural figures from Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding to Billy Holiday, said he keeps returning to telling the stories of strong people who have been misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time. Horn wrote a show about Tammy Wynette not only because he was fascinated with her as a misunderstood cultural figure but because of the richness of the storytelling in her music. Though it was a tricky endeavor, Horn said he chose to strip Wynette’s vocals from her original tracks and use those for the play to honor her even further. Though Valentine beautifully performs several of Wynette’s most memorable songs, the fact that she is singing against Wynette’s original tracks makes the play a much more intimate affair.
From her first experience at Triangle Productions, Portland resident Nancy Conrad was hooked on their impactful storytelling and poignant productions. The first show Conrad attended was, she said, a one-man show about a young man who passed away. Conrad said the play was so well-done, and it captured the feelings of grief so well that she has made it a point to try to attend every show since then. “I discovered this place just about four years ago, but I try to come to every play now,” Conrad said. “I’ve never been to a play [here] that wasn’t worthwhile.”
And that is what they hope you take away—as Horn said, “I want people to walk away [from a show] going ‘oh wow, I didn’t know that!’ or ‘I enjoyed that so much, I want to come back!’”