“Beasts of the Southern Wild” creator Lucy Alibar revisits her extraordinary childhood in a new play

By Christina Campodonico

Lucy Alibar channels her Southern upbringing to explore the silly and profound in “Throw Me on the Burn Pile and Light Me Up” Photo by Craig Schwartz

Lucy Alibar channels her Southern upbringing to explore the silly and profound in “Throw Me
on the Burn Pile and
Light Me Up”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Lucy Alibar’s stories invite you to see the world through a child’s eyes.

Her 2012 Oscar-nominated screenplay “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” co-written with director Benh Zeitlin and based on her play “Juicy and Delicious,” is told from the perspective of 6-year-old Hushpuppy — a fierce little girl who imagines extinct giant aurochs running through the bayou and grapples with the consequences of her father’s failing heart as a storm rages and tides rise.

Her new play “Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up,” now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, is narrated from the perspective of
a 9-year-old Lucy Alibar, telling fictionalized stories inspired by the author’s own Southern upbringing and the work of her father, a criminal defense attorney.

While Alibar says she’s playing herself, she spins this autobiographical material into a yarn, weaving in flights of fancy and elements of magical realism. When she performs, she imagines that she’s at a bar or a BBQ, telling a real good tale.

“It’s me just telling you stories that I wrote, but in a way that a friend would tell you stories,” says Alibar. “It’s definitely something that enjoys taking liberties.”

Alibar does, however, admit to borrowing several sayings from her real life dad, attorney Baya M. Harrison III.

“I steal a lot of my dad’s lines,” she says a little sheepishly, adding that he constantly teases her about waiting for royalties. “He’s like, ‘Where’s my check?’”

In the play, Alibar — wearing a white T-shirt, ripped up shorts and sneakers — transforms into a pre-teen raconteur version of herself. She tells tall tales
about a horny goat that goes around humping other animals, a magic egg that stops a fiery inferno, a Daisy Girl Scout escapade that almost turns into a kidnapping, receiving prophecies, and working on her Daddy’s death row cases. These cases — grisly and heinous, often committed by poor, ignorant men — bring up dilemmas about the American justice system, the death penalty and how wrath or mercy is administered through the law.

While writing the play, Alibar wrestled with her own questions about her father’s real-life legal work specializing in pro bono death row defense cases.

“I didn’t find out ’til I was 17 or 18 that he would be with his clients when they would be executed,” says Alibar. “I had no idea growing up. He always kept that particular aspect of his work from me. He’s never discussed why he did that. So a lot of this play for me was trying to figure out what that integrity comes from. Is it a loyalty to the Constitution? Is it a deeper secular humanist mindset? …

“How do we treat people who have done terrible things? I think what really compelled me to do this piece was that I had no idea what the solution is, what the answer could be.”

So Alibar turned to a medium she knows well and a mindset she finds illuminating — stories told by children.

“I think children telling things to you, children explaining the world to you, is one of the best ways you can get a real specific, unique picture of that world. There’s also this real lack of judgment,” says Alibar, going on to cite the worm-infested cats that run around her narrator’s home. “They’re everywhere all the time and they have worms and they give everybody diseases, but you love them. … They’re her life and they’re part of this wonderfully textured childhood that she has, and there’s no judgment about having 50 or so cats. … I’ve always really enjoyed that lack of judgment and that sincerity of emotional truth.”

At the same time, writing the play forced Alibar, 32, to see her young protagonist’s world with some adult perspective.

“I’m getting to be the age that my parents were when they had me and just seeing them as real humans for the first time,” she says. “Especially as an adult now, it feels like seeing the world flipped over. I’m really seeing the ways that you try to prepare your children for a very dangerous, unstable world.”

For instance, she recalls how her father told her never to step into a stranger’s car, a piece of advice she also shares in the play.

“He really did try to make sure that if a man ever asked me to get into a car I wouldn’t get into the car,” says Alibar. “He’s really been out of his way to prepare me for what he saw as a dangerous world.”

Yet for all the world’s dangers, “Throw Me on the Burnpile and Light Me Up” still glows with the optimism and innocence of youth.

In one scene, Alibar draws an incandescent portrait of a family sitting down for Christmas dinner —whole, happy and well fed. Her eyes light up and her arms gently glide through the air like a balletic composer swept up in the moment.

To quote the play, it makes your heart want to “bust right open.”

“Throw Me on The Burnpile and Light Me Up” continues at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 2 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9829 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $25 to $70. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.