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Mississippi Legends: Jane Reid-Petty

Mississippi Legends: Jane Reid-Petty

By: Marilyn Tinnin - April 21, 2024

  • The successful playhouse New Stage Theater remains true to the vision of its principal founder and continues to be a Mississippi treasure.

New Stage Theatre celebrates its fifty-ninth birthday this year. Since January 25, 1966, when Edward Albee’s controversial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened the premier season of Mississippi’s only professional theatre, New Stage has produced hundreds of top-tier shows. From classics to cutting-edge nuevo, from musicals and comedies to drama, tragedy and everything in between, the successful playhouse remains true to the vision of its principal founder, Jane Reid-Petty.

Jane, a Meridian native, was a gifted actress, critic, writer, and director. She was a giver, a thinker, and an extraordinary communicator. Several friends, including long-time board member Barbara Austin, used identical words to describe her. “She was a force.” With penetrating, clear blue eyes, Jane was stunning to behold. She also had the kind of charisma that quickly owned the room. In contemporary language, we might call her an “it” person.

As a college student, she was among the select few accepted into the revered creative writing program of Hudson Strode at the University of Alabama. There, she met her soulmate and husband, Ford Petty, a California native who was an aspiring writer and a true Renaissance man. Their marriage was the perfect match of intellect, passion, and chutzpah.

When the young couple settled in Jackson, Ford took a “day job” running Jane’s father’s insurance agency. They shared the dream of bringing theatre, on a professional level, to Jackson as well as to open it to the entire community. The civil rights era was at its height, a boiling caldron of divisive and conflicting opinions. It was in just that climate that New Stage was born. Racially diverse audiences, casts, staff worked together from the start.

The theatre departments at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College have provided talent and collaboration in every area.

Jim Child, now 94 and still a member of the New Stage Board of Trustees, reflects on those beginnings: “We wanted to feel a part of what was taking place in the country in terms of changes and attitudes and values. Perhaps we saw the theater as a way to make a statement for change.”

Nine brave souls became the core group to launch this venture with their blood, sweat, tears, and financial investment. Entertainment editor of the Jackson Daily News Frank Hains, D. Carl Black, Patti Carr Black, James K. Child, Kay Fort Child, Howard Jones, and Beth Griffin Jones joined Ford and Jane Reid-Petty as founders.

Eudora Welty, Mississippi’s First Lady of Letters, was a fan from the start and wrote an endearing foreword in New Stage’s 1983 fund-raising cookbook, Standing Room Only. She wrote, “Acquiring a home for itself was New Stage’s first act of faith. Did ever an old and disused church building standing vacant (and leaking) in an old downtown neighborhood look as radiant with promise to a company in search of a theatre?”

New Stage’s first home was indeed in a sketchy neighborhood where a Seventh-Day Adventist church stood quite vacant. Its owner rented the dilapidated building to the group for $150 a month. It took a roll-up-your-sleeves, can-do commitment, imagination, and elbow grease to improvise solutions to many structural deficiencies.

The building on the corner of Hooker and South Gallatin underwent a transformation, and the audiences packed in. Visiting professionals like Geraldine Fitzgerald and Inga Swenson performed there. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mississippi Arts Commission boosted the founders’ efforts. Though not without its occasional detractors, New Stage thrived.

Jane Reid and Ford had likely seen theatre on a level few Jacksonians of the day had been privileged to see. They traveled to New York City to hire an artistic director willing to birth a superb theatre in the Deep South. When Jane Reid and Ford approached him, Ivan Rider was a young producer living the dream in the Big Apple. He accepted the invitation, brought his energy and talent, and took New Stage even beyond the expectations of the founders.

The crowds’ size, the repurposed church’s limitations, and a leaky roof eventually spelled doom for the old church home. At the same time, across town, Jackson’s Amateur Little Theatre was on life-support, incurring debt, and sorely needing assistance. New Stage came to the rescue in 1978, buying the more modern structure on the corner of Carlisle and Whitworth along with the Little Theatre’s debt.

Actress Francine Reynolds arrived in 1988 for Steel Magnolias. Cast as Annelle, the shy, thick-spectacled, slightly mysterious hairdresser, she played next to Jane Reid-Petty’s character, M’Lynn, the quintessential Southern mama. One of New Stage’s most successful productions, the play extended past its original run. Francine accepted an internship teaching in the summer day camp and then stayed on as the Education Director, setting up the new touring program that fall.

Bringing live theatre to schools around the state, particularly those in underserved areas, continues to fulfill the founders’ vision. New Stage takes the theatre to everyone. Encouraging an appreciation for theatre is a strategic way to grow the next generation of audiences.

As the present Artistic Director of New Stage, Francine, like her mentor Jane, is a woman of many talents. She acts, directs, teaches, communicates, and programs the season’s offerings. In that capacity, she says her decisions always begin with this question, “What would Jane want? What would Jane do? How did Jane foresee the future?” Adapting to the culture without sacrificing artistic quality is her goal.

Francine describes “an ongoing process to attract today’s potential audience.” The Board of Directors has its finger on the pulse of the local community, professionals, and career people who shy away from events that eat up their leisure. Shorter plays, earlier start times, no intermissions, new plays with themes that appeal, and innovative ticket pricing are always considerations in the mix.

Jane died in 1998. The New York Times ran an article about her when she died, describing her as “director, playwright and founder of New Stage Theater in Jackson, Miss.” The story went on to say, “As a writer, she dramatized several stories by Eudora Welty. With the participation of Ms. Welty, she began the Eudora Welty New Plays Series in 1985. Ms. Reid-Petty was ‘’a perceiving and selfless contributor to the art of the theater,’’ Ms. Welty said.”

Ali Dinkins, a member of today’s younger generation of regular New Stage supporters and participants fell in love with acting as a teenager. Her first exposure to drama was New Stage. She studied acting in college and appears in New Stage productions regularly. As the mother of four, she has prioritized theatre appreciation as part of her children’s upbringing. Her now 21 -year- old son, McNeill, speaks highly of growing up in a household that embraced live performance and the interesting people associated with it. All four Dinkins young adults agree that their mother’s love for theatre enriched their lives in a magical way. New Stage embodied creativity and art on a level that was instructive, compassionate, and beautiful.

At least 35,000 Mississippians attend New Stage performances each year. It is one of the most respected professional, regional theatres in the country. From its meager beginnings and a budget of 20,000 dollars a year, it has grown to a 1,000,000 dollar budget a year — a stunning amount. Despite Mississippi’s reputation as lacking in significant financial resources, Jackson’s New Stage continues to compete with the most highly acclaimed and more financially endowed theatres in the country. To say that New Stage does a lot with a little is an understatement. Exceptional talent, commitment, and leadership under Bill McCarty III as managing director, has been a blessing beyond measure.

New Stage remains a jewel of which Mississippi can be incredibly proud. Jane Reid Petty’s dream continues to flourish. But then, the best things in life do tend to last and to transcend the changing culture from generation to generation. New Stage is one of those best things, for sure. Visit for info on summer camps and present and upcoming plays. 

About the Author(s)
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Marilyn Tinnin

Marilyn Tinnin is a lifelong Mississippian who treasures her Delta roots. She considers herself a forever student of politics, culture, and scripture. She was the founder and publisher of Mississippi Christian Living magazine. She retired in 2018 and spends her time free-lancing, watching Masterpiece series with her husband, and enjoying her grandchildren.