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The Magic of the Theater

    After nearly every performance of the play, Frankie, which I wrote with William Gregg, people would come up to me and ask: “How did you like it? Are you pleased with the way they performed your work?”

What I felt went so far beyond mere “like” or “pleased,” I didn’t always know how to respond. In truth, I was awed, overwhelmed by Gregg’s abilities as a director, the cast’s talent as actors and my own incredibly good fortune, at age 60, to be given the opportunity to participate in such an exciting creative venture.

I had, at my advanced age, finally discovered the magic of the theater. The truth was, I had always been scared of the stage. A shy kid, I couldn’t even imagine being able to boldly step on a stage and transform an imaginary character into someone real to an audience. And play writing was, in my view, the most difficult and highest form of the writing craft. I never dreamed I’d ever be able to participate in that world.

Then, out of the clear blue came a call from Gregg, the very talented young director of the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theater at Mars Hill College. He had read my book, The Untold Story of Frankie Silver. As a student himself he had acted in a play based on the story of Frankie Silver. He wanted to re-stage the play now, but after reading my book, he realized the older play had repeated any number of historical mistakes. For more than 150 years, storytellers and folklore specialists had repeated the myth that Frankie was an evil woman who killed her man cause he done her wrong. Unlike the Delta blues song about that other Frankie, I had learned that our Frankie was a brutally abused soul who simply struck back when her husband tried to kill her. Under the laws of that time, she was unable to take the stand in her own defense and explain all this to the jury and she was hanged at Morganton in 1833.

The more Gregg and I talked, the more excited we both became about writing a whole new play and at long last, giving Frankie herself the chance to tell her story. The play had its premiere in August of 2001 and it was a smashing success by every measure. Nearly every night, I looked around me and was amazed—and, yes, pleased--to see men and women alike crying over the tragic fate of our Frankie.

One Sunday matinee, I was delighted to see in the audience the great author, Wilma Dykeman, a heroine of mine from my early childhood in Asheville. As I walked Ms. Dykeman back to her car after the performance, she asked: “Now, Perry, what are you going to do now?” “Well, Wilma,” I said, taken aback by the question, “I guess I’ll go back to Chapel Hill and resume my life.”

“Oh, no!” she said, “You and Bill Gregg have created something truly wonderful and you simply must do something else now.”

And so we have. As of this writing, we are about three-fourths of the way through a new play based on the dramatic life and death of UNC Prof. Elisha Mitchell. Just as with the Frankie Silver story, we got more and more excited as we got deeper into the story of Mitchell’s discovery of the highest mountain in eastern America and his betrayal by a former student who almost succeeded in usurping Mitchell’s glory and the name of the mountain he had conquered. We hope the play will be produced in the summer of 2004.