Leaving Eden at PlayMakers Rep Exposes a Small N.C. Town’s Racist Past — and Present

Tangela Large and Tristan Parks (right) star as Selah and Moses in Leaving Eden (photo by HuthPhoto)
Tangela Large and Tristan Parks (right) star as Selah and Moses in Leaving Eden (photo by HuthPhoto)
Tangela Large and Tristan Parks (right) star as Selah and Moses in <em>Leaving Eden</em> (photo by HuthPhoto)
Tangela Large and Tristan Parks (right) star as Selah and Moses in Leaving Eden (photo by HuthPhoto)

From April 4th to April 22nd, PlayMakers Repertory Company will present the world premiere of Leaving Eden, a play with music written by Raleigh, NC playwright and actor Mike Wiley and directed by Vivienne Benesch, with music and lyrics by Piedmont, NC singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett. The first work fully commissioned by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s professional-theater-in residence, Leaving Eden will preview April 4-6, officially open on April 7th, and April 8, 10-15, and 17-22 in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art

In a news release on its website, PlayMakers Rep writes: “Two of North Carolina’s most vibrant, award-winning artists team up to bring us a searing new work that unearths the cycles of history in a small town where cotton is king in the 1930s, and pork processing keeps the town alive in 2016. Its black and Latino citizens are the backbone of the town’s economy past and present, so why are they also its most vulnerable to violence and hatred? As high-stakes elections loom during both time periods, the young, as ever, have a lot to fight for and a lot to learn. Leaving Eden is an exciting new work that is part folk musical and part oral history fable in the tradition of the North Carolina theatrical style, the folk play, which originated at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1918 with the Carolina Playmakers.”

“The impetus for Leaving Eden, in a nutshell, was wanting to write a play that comes out of North Carolina, but that also speaks to the country as a whole,” UNC alumnus Mike Wiley told Triangle Review. “Originally, it started as a play about the textile mills and jobs loss in North Carolina around 2014-15. But as time progressed and discussion ensued between all of us, I kind of realized that that story itself was transforming, because these towns were transforming.”

He adds, “Over the course of the last 15-20 years, these towns have had an influx of the Latinx population. These towns around North Carolina are seeing a change in their populations. Some towns are welcoming folks with open arms, and other towns are finding ways to push them out. Marah, NC — our fictional town — is finding a way to push them out. What the town itself doesn’t realize (or they are covering up) is that they have attempted to push out a population before. It was the African-Americans who lived here in 1933.”

“In Leaving Eden, the elemental narrator Selah [played by Tangela Large] carries us through the struggles of two generations in the fictional North Carolina town of Marah,” explains director Vivienne Benesch. “Old Ms. Maggie’s [Rebecca Guy] memories unfold in and out of the present, revealing that, though separated by over 70 years, these generations face similar struggles with racial tension and violence, as well as the surprising affinities that can be found with and for the sake of those we are often so quick to call ‘other.'”

Samuel Ray Gates (left) and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Mayor David and Roy White (photo by HuthPhoto)
Samuel Ray Gates (left) and Jeffrey Blair Cornell star as Mayor David and Roy White (photo by HuthPhoto)

In addition to Tangela Large as Selah and Rebecca Guy as Ms. Maggie, the PlayMakers Rep cast for Leaving Eden includes (in alphabetical order): David Adamson as Earl/Thomas, Carlos Alcala as Javier/Man 1, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Roy/Jacob, Geoffrey Culbertson as Ezekiel/Coyote 1, Rishan Dhamija as Taj, Ray Dooley as Gabriel/Doc Eddie Lanford, Samuel Ray Gates as David/Adam, Alex Givens as Andre/Seth, Kathryn Hunter-Williams as Cheryl/Eve, Trevor Johnson as Rev. Jackson/Ben Mason, Sarah Elizabeth Keyes as Jillian/Young Maggie, Sarita Ocón as Maria, and Tristan Parks as Tuan/Moses. The Ensemble includes (in alphabetical order): Peyton Furtado as Angela/Voice, Dan Toot as Foreman/Cop, and Jonathan Varillas as Miguel. Musicians include music director Laurelyn Dossett (guitar, vocals); Daniel Faust (percussion); Scott “Scooter” Manring (guitar, banjo); and Genevieve Palmer (stand-up bass, violin).

Benesch recalls, “My second day as Producing Artistic Director here at PlayMakers, I was told, ‘The NEA needs to know if we’re going forward on this project [Leaving Eden].’ I looked at the proposal and I said, ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t we?’

“I already knew I wanted to do more new work at PlayMakers, and here was this opportunity to see through our first full commission,” says Benesch. “I had already known about Mike from my years coming to work here, but I did not know Laurelyn. When we gathered together a few weeks into my tenure to have a conversation about whether we’d do this or not, we all got really excited about turning it into something very different from the original proposal.

“For me,” she says, “North Carolina is my new home and to be able to learn about my new home from Laurelyn and Mike in working on this project with this creative team with this cast…. I feel like it has deepened my roots in this place and taught me just how much I don’t yet know.”

Leaving Eden composer and music director Laurelyn Dossett recalls, “I was originally approached by [former PlayMakers producing artistic director] Joe Haj about five years ago, but the project was put on the back-burner when he left. When Mike first came up with his vision for a broader story, with his idea that ‘leaving Eden’ wasn’t just about people leaving to find work or leaving because they couldn’t find work, it was about banishment. This attunement to what had been happening in our state and our country rang true to me.”

She adds, “And then we talked a lot about what the role of the music would be: to help the story. It’s not a typical ‘musical theater’ musical and it doesn’t need to be. The music definitely comes from a more vernacular musical language. The singers are singing like people sing and the songs are not so much folk music, but they are everyday-people songs. They’re not grand gesture songs. Most of the songs are sung by the character Selah, and we pictured her as being ‘of the place,’ kind of rising up out of the river with her bones having been in the ground. She’s a sort of organic embodiment of the town’s history. The music is elemental.”

“I am excited to share the accumulation of what has been a very challenging and beautiful and authentic process,” says Vivienne Benesch. “And by authentic, I mean there have been a lot of ideas, a lot of feelings, a lot of vulnerabilities of what we have a right to be speaking about, what we have a right to be feeling. All the working on this play has literally woken all that up and that has been exhausting and exhilarating. I’m really curious to see the audience’s experience of receiving all that.”

Dan Toot (left) stars as Lucas in PlayMakers Rep's world premiere of <em>Leaving Eden</em> (photo by HuthPhoto)
Dan Toot (left) stars as Lucas in PlayMakers Rep’s world premiere of Leaving Eden (photo by HuthPhoto)

“When you are doing a full production of a new work, you’re still very much actively in the creative process, even up until opening night,” explains director Vivienne Benesch. “Previews are going to give us a huge amount of information. There are some things that are malleable, but then there are some things that are not — like the set that had to be built or the costumes and props that had to be built or bought months ago. So, in terms of the set, you have to have an envelope that will allow that kind of creativity.

“For example,” Benesch says, “in the script, Mike had written a revolve in the middle of the set. But because of the deep thrust of this space, we knew that wasn’t going to happen. So, we had to figure out, ‘What’s the envelope that we can create that’s going to allow us to be in multiple locations and multiple time periods, doing justice to the vision that Mike and Laurelyn had.'”

Besides playwright Mike Wiley, director Vivienne Benesch, and composer and music director Laurelyn Dossett, the PlayMakers Rep creative team for Leaving Eden includes assistant directors Matt Dickson and Jameeka Holloway, choreographer Tracey Bersley, scenic designer Jan Chambers, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, costume designer McKay Coble, sound designer Adam Bintz, stage manager Charles. K. Bayang, and assistant stage manager Liz Ray.

“The stage is sort of multiple locals delivered in a unit way, with many platforms and various textures, so it’s not realistic, but we can play realism on it,” says scenic designer Jan Chambers. “There are touchstones so the audience can understand where we are, but then it changes in an instant — by virtue of lighting, by virtue of characters changing, not just one person to another, but one time-period to another.”

She adds, “My mother’s family owned a farm in southeast North Carolina, and so our backdrop is made up of these images overlaid on corrugated steel — it’s our vista.

“But there’s also a storm in the backdrop of this story,” says Chambers. “So, knowing that it had to be a unit set, I wanted to bring the idea that something larger than us in this town could come sweeping through and change it — a sense of history coming at you. So, I started with this sweep and expense. You’ll see a road sweeping in from the cotton fields, the red and black tile of the barbershop. You’ll see the patterned linoleum of the old houses, the porch floorboards, the industrial rubber matting and steel ramp for the factors, and when you get the bottom you can see this overlay of just swamp.

PlayMakers Rep's world premiere of <em>Leaving Eden</em>, with script by Mike Wiley and music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett will run April 4-22 in UNC-Chapel Hill's Paul Green Theatre (photo by HuthPhoto)
PlayMakers Rep’s world premiere of Leaving Eden, with script by Mike Wiley and music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett will run April 4-22 in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre (photo by HuthPhoto)

“Then we cover it all up with this stuff. Gabe’s Junk Emporium takes place all over the set,” says Chambers. “Pieces here and there in strategic places for actors to pick up and use. A barber shop chair is sitting in the barber shop, but kind of halfway off the platform, so it has a sort of surrealistic element to it as well. Anyway, all of this junk gets piled so it should look at once ludicrous and fascinating — like layers of lives.”

Vivienne Benesch adds, “One of the main locations in 2016 is Gabriel’s Junk Emporium. And we know in the set from the beginning there has been a billboard with the outline of North Carolina stamped with ‘FULL.’ I was very interested in the American junkyard. YES, this [play] takes place in North Carolina, but how does our history accumulate? There are so many elements of the cycles of history but also home. And the junkyard of our minds.

“We deal with some really dark periods of history and history in the making,” says Benesch. “Jan came in one day with this wonderful idea of the entire set being Gabe’s Junk Emporium, with a sort of main street running down the center. Jan has brilliantly textured down through the set elements of water and the river and sand.

“All the way at top is the beautiful surround of the fields. But the backdrop is on corrugated metal, so there’s this wonderful mix of the expanse, but also the industrial. At the center of this town of Marah, North Carolina was a plantation called Eden that became a cotton mill and is now a pork-processing plant. Then it became the work of the props department to layer the set with the junk that makes up Gabe’s great junk emporium, largely inspired by Sid’s Surplus in Carrboro,” reveals Vivienne Benesch.

Rebecca Guy (left) and Kathryn Hunter-Williams star as Ms. Maggie and Cheryl (photo by HuthPhoto)
Rebecca Guy (left) and Kathryn Hunter-Williams star as Ms. Maggie and Cheryl (photo by HuthPhoto)

Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger says, “I’ve done a lot of new plays, so I’ve gotten used to the idea that you have to plan meticulously and then release it all. The questions a lighting designer asks are things like ‘Does time of day matter?’ ‘Is it about state of being?’ ‘Is it about time of year?’ ‘Is it about location?’

“In this case,” she says, “there are lots of locations and we go to different time periods. So, it becomes about the difference in the look between 1933 and 2016. We have to have signifiers. What the difference between the pork processing plant vs. outside at night vs. Eve & Adams porch vs. Gabe’s Junk Emporium? Some of it is about buying them space — so how much is revealed? And how do we change the billboard between eras? All of those things.”

Sound designer Adam Bintz says, “[Leaving Eden is] a little different in that because it’s a play with music, the music does a lot to set the place, set the time period, and set the tone. And that’s something that I would normally in a play that doesn’t have the music. So, I’ve been working a lot with Laurelyn on what is the story of the sound? What is told through sound effects and what is told through music. So, in this case, the sound effects, I kind of waited until we were up on our feet in the room, because it’s one of those elements that can change and it does change a lot. It requires me to be flexible and not have too many plans in place because any kind of changes we make in the story and discoveries we make will change what I do. And we’re also doing a lot in this show particularly with live sound as much as we can.”

He adds, “There’s a hurricane coming, so we have Foley instruments that can make the sound of thunder or wind. The band is able to create those, so the sound becomes part of the world of the play. We’ve been very careful about selecting which sounds we want to hear live and which ones will be prerecorded. I can get a lot louder with something pre-recorded, so sometimes we want to shake the house and make you feel like you’re in the middle of that storm.”

Sarah Elizabeth Keyes as Maggie and Tristan Parks as Moses enjoy a moment while Samuel Ray Gates as Adam, Alex Givens as Seth, and Tangela Large as Selah look on (photo by HuthPhoto)

SECOND OPINION: April 4th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/lessons-unlearned-in-mike-wileys-leaving-eden-a-tale-of-immigrant-rights-racial-strife-and-small-town-nc-politics/Content?oid=13040945; April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) preview by Will Shropshire: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2018/04/leaving-eden-0403; April 3rd Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright Mike Wiley, composer and music director Laurelyn Dossett, and actors Sarita Ocón and Carlos Alcala, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/history-repeats-itself-leaving-eden#stream/0; and March 8th Chapel Hill, NC Carolina Alumni Review preview by Beth McNichol ’95: https://alumni.unc.edu/news/step-into-those-shoes/.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents LEAVING EDEN, a world premiere by Mike Wiley, with music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett, at 7:30 p.m. April 4-6 Previews, 7:30 p.m. April 7 Opening Night, 2 p.m. April 8, 7:30 p.m. April 10-13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 14, 2 p.m. April 15, 7:30 p.m. April 17-20, and 2 p.m. April 21 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15-$48 ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or https://tickets.playmakersrep.org/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/box-office/groups-and-special-events/.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/show/leaving-eden/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/590136791335557/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTO7D5FTc2o.

PRC NEWS RELEASE: http://playmakersrep.org/press/leaving-eden/.

2017-18 SEASON: https://playmakersrep.org/season/2017-2018-season/

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

WARNING: On its website, PlayMakers Rep writes, “Due to the subject matter, racially motivated violence, and the use of some racial slurs, we recommend this show for ages 13 and up [emphasis added].” PRC adds, “Please be advised [that] this production contains simulated gunshots, water-based haze and fog, and the smoking of herbal cigarettes on stage [emphasis added].”

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be a gala opening-night performance, starting at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 7th.

NOTE 3: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10th.

NOTE 4: There will be FREE post-show discussions, with members of the cast and creative team, following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 11th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 15th, performances.

NOTE 5: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 14th (for more information, click here).

NOTE 6: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show Mindplay psychoanalytic discussion on “A Hymn for Our Future,” led by Natalie Peacock-Corral, LCSW, after the 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22nd, performance.


Leaving Eden (2018 world premiere play): http://mikewileyproductions.com/collab/ (Mike Wiley Productions) and http://www.processseries.unc.edu/leaving-eden (The Process Series).

Mike Wiley (Raleigh, NC playwright and actor): http://mikewileyproductions.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/mike-wiley/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1211650/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/mike.wiley.77 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/mikewileyprods (Twitter page).

Laurelyn Dossett (Piedmont, NC composer and music director): http://www.laurelyndossett.com/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/laurelyn-dossett/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm6827261/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/laurelyn.dossett (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/LaurelynDossett (Twitter page).

Vivienne Benesch (director and PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director): http://playmakersrep.org/artists/vivienne-benesch/ (PlayMakers Rep bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/vivienne-benesch-69799 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0070924/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/vivienne.benesch (Facebook page).


Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).