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“WMKS” Is a 1935 Barn-Style Radio Show

"WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow" runs June 16-26 (photo by Ron Foreman)

"WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow" runs June 16-26 (photo by Ron Foreman)

University Theatre at N.C. State will stage WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow, Frank Higgins’ 1935 barn-style radio show set in the coal country of southwestern Virginia, on June 16, 17, 19, and 22-26 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall on the NCSU campus. WMKS will be performed, in rotating repertory, with the two-character romantic comedy Southern Comforts by Kathleen Clark (June 18 and 19), as part of TheatreFest 2011: Southern Comfort.

“I was introduced to WMKS, Where Music Kills Sorrow about eight years ago, while assisting the playwright, Frank Higgins, in developing some of his other plays,” reveals director Allison Bergman. “I was working primarily in New York at the time, and never found the proper place for the piece there. But when University Theatre decided on a Southern theme for TheatreFest this year, I knew we had the right venue for it.”

Bergman, who is University Theatre’s assistant director and acting coach, adds, “WMKS is a microcosm of America on stage, and a celebration of tenacity. A family coming together, regardless of their differences, and fighting for what they know is right. The format is a unique hybrid. Its music we all know, but it’s contextualized in a way that makes the familiar seem new.”

When the curtain rises on WMKS, says Allison Bergman, “It’s 1935 in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The Depression has hit this town hard. But Doc (T. Philip Caudle) and his wife Alma (Elizabeth Williams) are about to begin broadcasting their ‘Saturday Night Play Party’ radio hour from their Lumberyard, as they do every week. They bring out their guitars, banjos, washboards, and harmonicas, and perform old favorite tunes from Mountain Music to Bluegrass to Gospel, and everyone loves to sing along.

“But this time,” Bergman says, “they may not get through it. The striking coal miners are their biggest listeners, so the coal companies are trying to shut them down. Not to mention, a few surprise guests might make it near impossible anyhow.”

She adds, “Their estranged son Johnny (Mark Dillon), a rising Country and Western star, has come home to claim his girl Cindy (Brett Williams), but his childhood friend Willy (Tyler Haggard) has other plans. Two more guests show up: Audrey and Robert Newton (Rhonda Bond and John Rogers Harris), bringing with them some very unwelcomed intruders (Paul Brothers and Kenneth Hertling). The audience and the radio listeners are gonna have a good time anyway, ‘cuz the band is armed with fiddles, banjos, bass, piano, a dulcimer … and a couple of shotguns.”

In addition to director Allison Bergman, the University Theatre at N.C. State creative team for WMKS includes musical director Cathy Hamner, technical director David Jensen, set designer John C. McIlwee, lighting and sound designer Paul Pharris, costume designer Jennifer Dasher, properties manager Jayme Mellema, and stage manager Caroline Domack.

The band includes Ryan Mack (bass), Christen Blanton (fiddle and mandolin), Doug Baker (banjo and guitar), and musical director Cathy Hamner (piano, autoharp, dulcimer, and spoons).

Bergman says, “When you come into the theater, you will be entering the warehouse of Carroll’s Lumberyard, which has been converted into a radio studio, with plenty of seating, microphones, and a good strong lock on the door to keep out the troublemakers.”

She adds, “The lighting in the warehouse ‘ain’t nothin’ fancy.’ Which is fine, as long as the generator doesn’t get shot up. You might want to bring a lantern or two….

“The Carrolls and the Newtons are trying to dress their best in the midst of the Great Depression, in coal country,” Bergman points out. “Of course, their clothes don’t compare to Johnny’s get up. He’s the Hollywood cowboy whose ‘belt buckle is bigger than his brain.'”

Bergman says, “The actors in the show sing and play musical instruments. It makes this a unique show to cast. It’s part concert and part musical theater, which makes it a unique experience for the audience, too.”

She adds, “Be prepared to sing along and tap your toes to a whole bunch of old-time favorites, including ‘Jenny Jenkins,’ ‘Bought Me a Cat,’ ‘Cindy,’ ‘Tom Dooley,’ ‘The Crawdad Song,’ and ‘Down by the Riverside.'”

University Theatre at N.C. State presents WMKS, WHERE MUSIC KILLS SORROW at 7:30 p.m. June 16, 17, 19, and 22-25 and 2 p.m. June 26 in the Titmus Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, on E. Dunn Ave. at Jensen Dr., in Raleigh, NC 27607, on the NCSU campus.

TICKETS: $13-$15 ($5 NCSU students).

BOX OFFICE: 919/515-1100 or






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