OdysseyStage Theatre’s Feb. 13th Reading of Ona by Keith Burridge Set the Record Straight

I didn’t know what OdysseyStage Theatre was when I was assigned to review their production of Ona earlier this month; but based on the subject matter, I knew I was taking my 11-year-old son to the production.

Ona is a play-in-the-making by Keith Burridge, a retired UNC Cell Biologist(!) who clearly has a hankering for history and setting the record straight. It is about Martha Washington’s maid, Ona Judge, who was one of few slaves to make successful escape from the Washingtons.

OdysseyStage Theatre partners with The ArtsCenter of Carrboro and other Triangle venues to produce original works by North Carolina playwrights. They have a new program called Staged: New Play Readings, in which plays-in-process, such as Ona, are read onstage by local actors under the direction of N.C. directors — in this case, former N.C. Central University professor of theater Karen Dacons-Brock.

When we arrived at The ArtsCenter at 2 p.m. on a rainy Sunday afternoon, my son and I were handed a sheet of paper with questions for us to consider during the production (😃) and directed to a sizable and impressive visual art exhibit entitled When Paint Speaks by “narrative painter and photographer” Allison Coleman. It’d been a while since we’d seen a “real” art exhibit, and I enjoyed the ensuing discussion immensely. Soon two large metal doors opened, and we walked into the same comfortable theater where I’d seen Justin Roberts with my older kids over 10 years ago.

What ensued was a wonderfully educational experience for both my son and me, despite the fact that there was no set and, truly, no action. The actors sat in a row of black chairs behind a row of black music stands, each of them rising in turn and read-acting as if they were in the middle of a full-set production. In my mind’s eye, I could see Martha Washington (1731-1802), skillfully played by Mary Rowland, at her dressing table, complaining Downton-Abbey-style as her young chamber maid pulled the tangles out of her hair. But Sierra Smith’s and Evit Emerson’s performances of African characters Ona Judge and Hercules/Jack Stains, and Emily Chiola’s biting portrayal of Martha Washington’s spoiled granddaughter Betsy, do not let you forget the difference between an employed British servant and African slaves.

At around 1.75 hours, the play stretched my son’s attention span just the right amount. And we learned many new things during that time. I will not spill them to you here. But I will tell you that, during the intermission, I found myself voraciously searching “African immunity to yellow fever” on my cell phone.

To my delight (and my son’s somewhat dismay), the audience was invited to remain after the play to discuss the questions handed to us on arrival. I was grateful for my son (who is a student at the Durham School of the Arts, with an interest in theater) to witness this part of a play’s creation. Producer Annie Taft, associate producers Debra Kaufman and Maria Piskor, playwright Keith Burridge, director Karen Dacons-Brock, and all the actors were sincerely eager for constructive criticism, and it was a privilege to be a part of the resulting respectful and mutually beneficial discussion.

Ona is a tasteful presentation of the historical and spiritual realities of slavery and its prominent role in the division that has plagued America since its very start. I can’t wait for this play to be performed with a full set, not just in Carrboro, but in Durham, Raleigh, and beyond; and not just by professional actors, but by college, middle and high-school students. The message it contains, and the positive and loving manner in which it is presented, can only help heal.

In the meantime, parents and teachers of middle- and high-school students should make the effort to attend (or give extra credit for attending) one of OdysseyStage Theatre’s New Play Readings. (The next performance is a staged reading of Milk and Honey Whiskey by Grace Siplon, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 13th, at The ArtsCenter for just $8 per ticket). Not only are you sure to learn something new; but the experience provides a closeup view of the nitty gritty of theater creation and performance that anyone with an interest in the field should see.

ONA (In Person and Virtual on Sunday, Feb. 13th), written by Keith Burridge, directed by Karen Dacons-Brock, presented as part of Staged: New Play Readings, and starring Sierra Smith as Ona Judge, Mary Rowland as Martha Washington, Evit Emerson as Hercules and Jack Staines, Kelly McDaniel as Dolly Madison, Emily Chiola as Betsy, Travis Walsh as Joseph, and Gerald Rubin as the Rev. Allen, with stage directions by Bruce Rosenbloom (OdysseyStage Theatre in the Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater at The ArtsCenter of Carrboro). FEATURETTE: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1096940484493092. 2022 SEASON: http://www.odysseystage.org/current-productions/staged-new-play-readings/. THE PRESENTER: https://www.odysseystage.org/, https://www.facebook.com/OdysseyStage, https://www.instagram.com/odysseystagetheatre, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXT4FpUyLxcizriWEBpOe3A. THE VENUE: https://artscenterlive.org/, https://www.facebook.com/artscenterlive, https://www.instagram.com/artscenterlive/, https://twitter.com/artscenterlive/, and https://www.youtube.com/user/TheArtsCenterLive. INFORMATION: odysseystage@gmail.com. PLEASE DONATE TO: OdysseyStage Theatre. [RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]

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A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children’s picture books. She has published children’s stories and verse in Highlights Children’s Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council’s Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn’t writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham’s Soil and Water Conservation District. Click here to read Melissa Rooney’s reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

By Melissa Rooney

A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham's Soil and Water Conservation District.