Play date: N.C. Stage’s catalyst series starts the year with two local productions

Image 1. Go, Granny Go!: Barbara Bates Smith portrays Granny D who, at age 90, walked across the U.S. to draw attention to the need for election reform. Photo by Jeff Sebens

Image 2.  Fresh Preserves: Family stories inspired Buncombe Turnpike bassist Tom Godleski’s 10-track album,  which inspired the play of the same name. His band provides the soundtrack, onstage.

what: Go, Granny Go!: Friday, Jan. 11-Sunday, Jan. 20 (Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., $10-$15.) http://www.ncstage.org.
what: Fresh Preserves:  Wednesday, Jan. 23-Sunday, Jan. 27 (Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. $10-$15.) http://www.ncstage.org.

Actor, playwright and workshop leader Barbara Bates Smith is perhaps best known for her one-woman plays based on the writings of N.C.-based novelist Lee Smith. But recently she stumbled across a new muse: the late Doris “Granny D” Haddock.

“I don’t even know how the book ended up in my hands,” says Smith. The book, Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year (culled from journals Granny D kept during her cross-country walk, and written with Dennis Burke) recounted Granny D’s trek from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the need for election reform. “I was just astonished to realize I didn’t know about her,” says Smith.

While crafting the stage production, Go, Granny, Go!, Smith learned that Granny D’s co-author, Burke, had published a second book about the nonagenarian activist’s post-walk undertakings.

“A couple of years later, she went on a voter-registration tour in places where people needed to be registered to vote,” says Smith. “That’s when she came through Asheville.” During that trip, Smith says, Granny D met tattoo artist Blue Broxton, who joined her campaign.

That, and the activist claims that it was in Asheville where she got high for the first time. With Woody Harrelson, naturally.

Word play

In 2004, at age 94, Granny D went home to New Hampshire and ran for the Senate. As a result of her work, she was given a lot of credit for the passing of the McCain/Feingold bill, a bipartisan campaign finance reform act. That bill was overturned in 2010, the year Granny D passed away. “I thought it might seem [to her] that all that effort had been in vain,” says Smith. “But I learned that she said, ‘Democracy is a running game. You huddle and you go back in.’ All of that is highly motivating and inspiring to me.”

Smith says that, with the recent election, the Granny D story was timely, and “It was a delight for me to use her words.” On “a brave day,” she called N.C. Stage artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver.

“Since 2004, N.C. Stage’s Catalyst Series has played host to some of the most exciting grassroots theatre in Western North Carolina,” says the theater’s call for applications. Selected offerings have included burlesque, sketch comedy and performance art. “N.C. Stage’s goal with the Catalyst Series is to enhance our own programming while offering local companies the infrastructure they need to produce the best possible work.”

N.C. Stage doesn’t produce the work, but does provide support and advice. The theater company looks for performances with box-office appeal, and splits the proceeds with the Catalyst artist whose work is being performed.

Four years ago, Smith showed her production based on Lee Smith’s On Agate Hill at N.C. Stage, as part of the Catalyst Series. “Ever since then I thought it would be nice to go back there some time. I said, ‘Look, I have this new thing coming up that’s different from anything else.’” N.C. Stage was interested in the two-act play, which Smith performs with musical accompanist Jeff Sebens.

Smith says that she hopes to challenge audiences to “pick up on Granny D’s notion of election reform.” But for her, as the playwright, Granny D’s written words proved to be the muse.

“I’m kind of storytelling,” says Smith. “I put on a hat, a vest and a walking stick and I become Granny D.”

Family fodder

Another storyteller is local singer-songwriter and playwright Tom Godleski, whose Catalyst series play, Fresh Preserves, takes its cues from family lore. Actually, the play is based on Godleski’s solo album (he’s also the lead singer and bass player in local bluegrass outfit Buncombe Turnpike) of the same name. The 10 tracks on that record represent two hands-full of stories about local characters and relatives.

“It’s kind of an autobiography,” says Godleski, who debuted the play at Mars Hill’s Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. Many of the stories depicted by the songs and stage drama were told to Godleski — who has lived on family property in Emma for nearly his entire life — by his Uncle Robert.

“He was my biggest influence as a storyteller,” says Godleski. “He knew a tattooed man who, on his rear-end, had a tattoo of a rabbit and a beagle, and you know where that rabbit was running.”

And then there’s the one about Uncle Robert’s grandfather — George Young— a big, mean man, who lived in Madison County. A guy named King walked from Shelton Laurel one day to pick a fight with that Young. The culminating line in the song is, “Young did just what he said right then. The fight was done. King came to Barnard with two good eyes and left with only one.” Says Godleski, “I wanted to be a little bit tactful.”

Another grandfather left a ledger full of stories after his death, including one about feisty Aunt Tildy who beat up a soldier during the Civil War.

Near the end of Uncle Robert’s Life, Godleski visited with a digital recorder to capture some of the stories he’d heard so many times growing up. “Fresh Preserves was a way of honoring my family,” says Godleski. “It’s about the lessons I learned as a kid.”

The play is not the musician’s first turn at script writing. An earlier one-act play, A Buncombe Turnpike Sunset, dealt with life on the historic drover’s road that ran through Asheville. Godleski performed it, with help from his Buncombe Turnpike bandmates, at the Folk Art Center.

The band is also on stage for the entirety of two-act Fresh Preserves, which boasts a cast of about 18. Don Lewis of bluegrass band Sons of Ralph will be part of the production, and “both of my sons are in the play,” says Godleski (his youngest, Brian, is half of hip-hop duo CrazyHorse & Colston). It’s a family show in the truest sense.

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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