This year marks the sesquicentennial — that’s 150 years to those who are not inclined to word-nerdery — of the founding of the Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC. So, it is fitting that with Oakwood at 150, directed by George Jack, Burning Coal Theatre Company continues its annual tradition of bringing to life the stories and biographies of the many outstanding Americans buried within the 102-acre property.
Tales from the crypt vary in scope from the stories of influential, cornerstone members of the early days of Raleigh, to simpler narratives of nameless soldiers buried with dignity. Actors regal the audience through vignettes and dramatized scenes. Spectators are seated outdoors, nestled in among the tombstones and burial plots of the very people whose lives are acted out in front of them. The result is quite moving, as past and present brush up against the backdrop of this serene graveyard oasis.
This year’s installment is a fine one, with six short scenes written by six accomplished writers. Local playwrights are assigned a historical character buried in Oakwood Cemetery, and seeing how they each approach their subject matter in ways that are both clever and engaging is always a treat. Historical accuracy is the key, with many scenes being expositional by necessity, as narrators and characters need to provide the audience a great deal of context and back story in a very short amount of time.
Each scene lasts about 10 minutes or so; and each vignette held its own true to form, although some playwrights accomplished this better than others. Standout scenes included “I Wasn’t Any Hero” (written by Ken Walsh), in which Bobby Croker (played by a dynamic and impressively eloquent George Russing), a youth who died in the South Pacific after being drafted into the Navy, meets up with his recently deceased younger brother Billy Croker (the always erudite Kurt Benrud), an old man who lived a long life under the shadow of his war-hero brother. The juxtaposition of the older brother who died young and the younger brother who died at a ripe old age, arguing about who had it better, was amusing as well as reflective.
Another standout scene, written by Brook North and entitled “A Matter of Conflict,” allowed the renowned Henry Mordecai the chance to argue with a sullen Millennial teenager as to why a privileged white man’s story could possibly have any relevance in today’s world. The result was immensely provocative, and was the highlight of the evening’s offerings for this reviewer.
The venue has its obvious pros and cons — the location this year was well-chosen, perched on the swell of a hill that allowed for a defined performance area while providing an incomparable view of the grounds. However, the seats were arranged in such a way that there was quite a bit of distance between the actors and the further rows, making some of the quieter scenes a little hard to hear over the background noise of city and wildlife.
A cozier seating arrangement might well benefit in future productions. The actors, however, did an incredible job of overcoming the challenges out outdoor performing, and communicated their characters well. Noelle Barnard Azarelo brought a dazzling vivacity to each of her characters, in particular Sophia Partridge, whose deep compassion for the deceased, combined with sheer force of will, played a major part in relocating soldier’s remains, so that they could rest in peace. Leslie Castro also shone in various — and occasionally gender-blind — roles, and very nearly stole the show with her turn as the firebrand Author in “Conflict”.
With the weather nigh on perfect this time of year, Oakwood at 150 is a charming, entertaining, educating, and moving production that does honor to the history of this city as well as its artistic community. Everyone involved should be proud of their dynamic and valuable contribution to the enrichment of history buffs and arts enthusiasts alike. For more information, click here.
SECOND OPINION: May 17th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Spencer P. Phillips: https://www.cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9437.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents OAKWOOD AT 150 at 2 p.m. May 19 in Historic Oakwood Cemetery, 701 Oakwood Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $20 ($10 students and children).
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001.
SHOW: https://burningcoal.org/oakwood-at-150/, https://www.facebook.com/events/321462118512502/, and https://www.historicoakwoodcemetery.org/event/performance-of-oakwood-at-150-at-burning-coal-theatre-3/.
BURNING COAL’S HISTORY PLAYS: https://burningcoal.org/ourhistory/.
PRESENTER: http://www.burningcoal.org/, https://www.facebook.com/Burning.Coal.Theatre, and https://twitter.com/burningcoaltc.
VENUE: https://www.historicoakwoodcemetery.org/, https://www.facebook.com/historicoakwoodcemeteryraleigh, https://twitter.com/HistoricOakwood, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_Oakwood_Cemetery.
George Jack (Raleigh, NC director and theater professor at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh): https://www.st-aug.edu/profile/george-jack/ (Saint Augustine’s University bio) and https://www.facebook.com/george.jack.77 (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.