Oakwood Cemetery Series Respectfully Resurrects Pieces of North Carolina History

How will you be remembered when you die? It’s a question that is difficult to think about, not just because it forces us to come face to face with mortality, but because it makes you acknowledge the fact that, at the end of all things, we have very little control over how other people perceive us.

Burning Coal Theatre’s Oakwood Cemetery Series, a series of a few short plays surrounding the lives of those buried in Oakwood ties together the taboo of death with the celebrations of life.

This year’s lineup consisted of six plays, each bursting with a sense of southern charm and a heart of the community. It’s not often that I leave a performance with more knowledge than I entered with, but that’s an achievement that I’ll hand with happiness to the Oakwood Cemetery Series.

Lydia Sbityakov’s Mary Ann Scherr: The Space Age, tells the story of a day in the life of the titular character, 48-year-old metalsmith and designer Mary Ann Scherr. Of course, this particular day is the day following Apollo 11’s successful landing on the moon. The Space Age ties together the hallmark themes of the late ’60s, with dreams of innovation, changing family dynamics, and the question of, “where can we go from here?” Perhaps the most important theme of the piece is that of connection. And although Sbityakov writes Scherr as a kindhearted but strong-willed, artist and innovator, it seems like that is something even she seems unable to comprehend, as evident from her uneven conversations with her daughter to her awkward interviews with reporters.

Courtney Pisano’s Ellen Z. McGrew brings us back in time (literally) to the days of World War II. Here, Ellen Z. McGrew becomes a teacher and mentor to a young student. McGrew weaves a true tale about the role of women in WWII, from the constant switching of jobs to the uncertainty of their places in a post-war society. With the theme of learning by doing, I feel it only appropriate to say that I can’t tell you how fun this play is.

Renèe Nixon’s Chatting With J.D. Lewis addresses themes of racial inequality and chance through J.D. Lewis’ rags to riches story. Here Taylor, a college student, meets her idol, Lewis, whose life seems to have been written with the ink of success from his beginnings as a high school football star to his legendary status as the first Black man to host a regularly scheduled television program. Taylor and Lewis trade quips and tales, forming an almost familial bond, if only for the night, leaving the audience with a sense of enlightenment and pride.

All of the plays were incredible, but I would be lying if I said that Tamara Kissane’s Radiant Edges of The Earth didn’t speak to my own curiosities the most. Radiant Edges follows a conversation between siblings Rene and Einer Rasmussen, an older sister who is concerned (but amused) by her younger brother’s rebellious antics. Of course, in the life of Einer, rebellious antics means hitchhiking to Daytona Beach with no warning, which Kissane relates with the same emotion and excitement that marked the life of the subject.

Perhaps the most poignant play of the night was Brook North’s surreal Point of No Return, which tells a tale of tragedy, loss, and survival. Woodward siblings Deanne and Roger begin their day by taking a boat ride with family friend Jim Honeycutt and end the day traumatized and without Honeycutt. Point of No Return treats us to rounds and repetition, creating an atmosphere of anxiety and shock throughout.

Finally, Ken Walsh’s I Wasn’t Any Hero reunites the two Crocker brothers, one who died in battle during WWII, and one who lived a long life in America. One brother is remembered as a hero, but the other is remembered as family. The latter had a more fulfilling life, but the former had a more significant death. Walsh brings us a story of familial relationships, loss, and the question of what could have been, as opposed to what was.

Death is natural… frightening but natural. None of us gets to choose to live or die, but we do get to choose who leaves a legacy. Will we be trailblazers like Scherr and Lewis? Will we be brave like McGrew and Rasmussen? Will we be heroes like Honeycutt and Crocker? None of us can say. But perhaps we can all hope to be lucky enough to be buried in the beautiful Oakwood Cemetery, and chosen to have our story immortalized by Burning Coal Theatre, if just for one weekend.

Burning Coal Theatre’s production of Oakwood Cemetery Series 2021 is available to stream through October 31. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/oakwood-and-history-plays/.

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