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Burning Coal Theatre Company couldn't have asked for better weather during their Friday evening production of Oakwood at 150. The humidity hadn't yet reached its familiar summertime fever pitch, but as North Carolina is forecast to meet our first – surely of many – 90 degree day this summer, Saturday's production might not be so lucky. The sun set slowly over a serene cemetery nestled in a grove of magnolias and oak trees even more ancient than the stones over which they stand watch. Several rows of folding chairs faced the largest oak tree in the area on a patch large enough to seat the living without treading on the dead; and so the scene was set.
Director George Jack, an institution at Burning Coal in his own right after more than 15 years as a company member, led his ensemble of eight through the stories of over twenty characters in six short plays. Company member Lucia Foster greeted the audience with a brief history of Burning Coal's annual Oakwood series. In this 14th annual production, Oakwood at 150 celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Historic Oakwood Cemetery. The series of new works, written by six local playwrights, outlines the lives and achievements of several North Carolina natives buried at the site. We learned of Asa Forrest, one of two Union soldiers buried in a field of over 1,000 Confederates, and Bobby Crocker, a World War II casualty at the young age of 19. We learned of Jonathan Worth, who moved from the position of NC Treasurer to Governor on the platform that he opposed the state's secession from the Union. And we learned of the three most responsible for the birth of Oakwood Cemetery: Sophia Partridge, Henry Mordecai, and William Edward Anderson.
In "Sophia Partridge and Henry Mordecai," playwright Courtney Pisano illustrates how Sophia Partridge, originally the founder of a school for young women, founded the Oakwood Cemetery in 1869. After tending to the sick and wounded in the Civil War, Sophia saw the need for suitable gravesites for Confederate dead in the Union-occupied Wake County. With the help of the community, Sophia relocated over 400 graves in just two days. This particular work culminated the evening’s six performances, but the production team may have done better to open with it.
An opening of "Sophia Partridge and Henry Mordecai" would have afforded the opportunity of closing the evening with the story of the cemetery's evolution in Brook North’s "A Matter of Conflict." In North's short work, we learned of William Edward Anderson, who purchased more land for the sake of expanding the cemetery to include civilians. In the meta-theatrical context of a conversation between William's spirit and the author of an Oakwood play, North's work presented the most poignant content of the evening: Why do we care about a dead rich white guy when the ground we stand on was truly preserved at the hands of enslaved Americans? With an opening of the cemetery's origin story, the frank conversation between the two characters of "Conflict" would have provided a dynamic bookend.
Besides providing the most dynamic context, "Sophia" and "Conflict" displayed the strongest performances of the evening from their actors. With Sophia Partridge the only woman at the center of any of the six plays, Noelle Barnard Azarelo's commanding portrayal did justice to her impressive history. Her collaboration with Bobby Callaway's Henry Mordecai conveyed an effective partnership that was well illustrated by narrator David Whiting, played by George Russing. Leslie Castro and Bobby Callaway, both triple cast in Oakwood at 150, performed an equally attention-grabbing repartee in the provoking "A Matter of Conflict." Castro was bold with her character's confrontation of the age-old Civil War debate, and Callaway was unapologetic in his candor as the late William Edward Anderson.
Similarly, the present met the past in Ken Walsh's "I Wasn't Any Hero" when Billy Crocker is reunited at his death with his long-deceased brother, Bobby. Kurt Benrud embodied the wisdom of Billy's many years and well foiled his "older" brother Bobby, trapped forever in the 19-year-old form that died in World War II. George Russing captured Bobby's teenage devil-may-care attitude as the brothers worked to reconcile one life lived in a war hero's shadow with one life hardly lived at all.
Russing appeared in his third role of the evening supporting Thom Haynes and Bobby Callaway in "Jonathan Worth: An Unlikely Candidate." Haynes, alongside Lucia Foster, opened the evening with their portrayal of Asa and Betsy Forrest in Salinda Tyson's "Forrest." However, his most notable performance came with the story arc of the conflicted pacifist Jonathan Worth. From the outbreak of the Civil War to its aftermath, Worth rose in rank from NC Treasurer to Governor with the support of longtime friend Edward, played by Bobby Callaway; his wife Martitia, played by Noelle Barnard's Azarelo; and the incumbent Governor Vance, played by Gary Pezzullo.
Pezzullo's performance continued his trend of steady supporting characters from his first performance of the night, Henry Seawell in "The Great Humbug (Who Has Not Heard of Shocco Jones?). "Pezullo, along with Noelle Barnard Azarelo as Elizabeth Seawell Jones, provided the springboard for Leslie Castro's feisty portrayal of young Shocco Jones, who defied his upbringing to aspire only to "hoaxes." Although Seawell was the intended honoree of the Oakwood Series for his work to retain Raleigh as North Carolina's seat of government, playwright Lydia Sbityakov did more to highlight the story of Seawell's nephew Shocco Jones – of whom we have now heard.
Despite the achievements of the many, it is impossible to ignore the violent history of enslavement and systemic racism that laid the foundation for such a monument as the Historic Oakwood Cemetery. Indeed, the very land it stands on was long worked by the hands of slaves, and Burning Coal did well to not to ignore that. Still, though modest, the one-weekend production of Oakwood at 150 encompasses a more significant undertaking: a local North Carolina theatre company commissions local playwrights to tell the stories of local historic figures on the very ground where many found their final resting place. The marriage of art and history is sure to endure for many years to come.
Oakwood at 150 continues through Sunday, May 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.