Coming To Oxford: Comedy screenwriter David Sheffield brings 'The Heartbreak Henry' to stage

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Jul. 29—OXFORD — David Sheffield has experienced a lot as a comedy writer, but nothing quite like what he experienced at the Henry Hotel in 1967.

With his new play, "The Heartbreak Henry," Sheffield returns to his old stomping grounds in Oxford, where his career as a comedy writer began.

The Theatre Oxford production runs Aug. 12-15, with a preview on Aug. 11 at the Gertrude C. Ford Performing Arts Center in the Mary Ann Mobley/Gary E. Collins Studio Theatre.

The production, which Sheffield wrote and directed, is based on his various experiences as the manager of the hotel.

"I went to Ole Miss for an education, but the real education took place at the Henry Hotel," Sheffield said. "I saw things at the Henry I never saw at home."

Sheffield was a freshman at The University of Mississippi at the time. Rooms would set a guest back $4.50, there was a payphone in the lobby and, to Sheffield's horror, he had to evict two waitresses with illegal social side-gigs on Christmas Eve.

"This story happened about 50 years ago," Sheffield said. "I met a bunch of characters I couldn't get out of my mind. At the Henry, the unexpected was the norm."

Sheffield playfully referred to his time at the hotel as "quite a life experience."

"I met a lot of bizarre characters, a lot who are in this play," he said.

The Laurel native has long dreamed of writing about his experience at the hotel.

After college, he went on to pursue his dream as a screenwriter, writing for Saturday Night Live and Eddie Murphy movies like "Coming To America" and its recent sequel, "The Nutty Professor," "Boomerang" and more.

Sheffield said "The Heartbreak Henry" has been in the works for quite some time, and it feels great for him to be able to bring this story back to where it all started.

That said, Sheffield's old stomping grounds are different from what he remembers.

"Oxford is vastly different than it was in 1967," Sheffield said. "You can count the empty stores. There were few businesses. Now, it's bustling with activities, bars and everything. It was not so in 1967."

Sheffield wrote for SNL from 1980 to 1983. He helped write some of the show's most popular sketches, including Buckwheat, James Brown's Hot Tub Party and Velvet Jones ... all of which featured legendary standup comedian Eddie Murphy. It was the beginning of a long working relationship between the comedian and writer.

"Eddie was right out of high school when I met him on SNL. I just heard him doing funny characters," Sheffield said.

Along with his writing partner, Barry Blaustein, Sheffield has helped write many of Murphy's screenplays over the past 40 years.

"It's a different experience; we had different hosts every show, but I really enjoyed every moment of it," Sheffield said of his time working on SNL.

When asked about comedy writing and what the genre has meant to him over his career, Sheffield said it's something that's very much needed in the world today.

"For me, comedy is a relief," Sheffield said. "We need to laugh. Especially in the times that we're living in now. I think that comedy is a public service."

As for "The Heartbreak Henry," Sheffield wants the audience to view the production simply as a story that shows his growth and experience by way of the Oxford hotel.

"I want them to see this as a coming of age story," Sheffield said. "I learned more at the Henry hotel than I did at school. I think that this play will show us that some of the people we meet in our lives are damaged and very hurt, and we have to accept them for who they are."

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