By Connie Leinbach
The revival of the play “A Tale of Blackbeard” after a 20-year hiatus is the talk of Ocracoke. An original musical by former islander Julie Howard, the show had four
preview performances in May and will begin its summer run Monday nights at 8 p.m. June 9 through Aug. 11 in the Community Center. “I’m having a blast,” noted Trish Davis, who never acted before and who plays Euphemia, one of the female leads. That’s the general feeling of all the cast members.
Matt Tolson, the head daytime chef at the Flying Melon Café, is Blackbeard and also a first-time thespian, and is having a great time stretching himself. “I wrote on the audition sheet ‘not a singer,’ and, five minutes later I was Blackbeard,” he said. “I grabbed it with both horns. I have big shoes to fill, following the legendary Dave Frum, Gary Mitchell and David Senseney.” “He was it,” noted co-director/ choreographer Desiree Ricker about Tolson’s appearance—tall and commanding, with a dark beard to boot. Part of Tolson’s costume is a necklace of dolphin teeth he calls a “mystical trinket” that Senseney and Philip Howard had crafted. Tolson was 12 when he found the necklace in 1993 on the Southpoint beach. Since the community knew that Senseney had lost it, Tolson returned the necklace and forgot about it.
“Opening night, there’s a package from David and a two-page letter,” Tolson said. The letter related how Senseney had lost it. “And you found it,” Senseney wrote in the letter. “Please wear it on stage.” “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I read that,” Tolson said. “It gave me the chills.” Opening night of the May previews was great, Tolson said. “It kind of set the bar.” “It was the best opening night I’ve ever had from a cast,” added director Charles Temple.
The crafting of the show is kind of mystical itself in that author-composer Julie Howard, though an English major and music minor in college, had never composed much of anything before or after this work. “It was all because of Danny Garrish,” said Howard, who was married to islander Philip Howard in the 1970s when the play began. “The PTA was doing little skits and variety shows and at one of the cast parties, Danny said, ‘What we need is a play about Blackbeard,’ ” she explained recently.
The late Garrish ran the Community Store and was an Ocracoke icon, she said. There were 500 people living on the island and a tourist industry nascent.
“He was a great singer and had a good stage presence,” she said. Garrish played Blackbeard’s cook, Ezekiel, played this time by Bill Cole. Katy Mitchell plays the boarding house cook.
“I worked on it in the fall and winter of 1973 and ’74,” she said about creating the piece. At night, while she lay in bed before falling asleep, the music and lyrics would come to her and she’d write it down the next day. The well-crafted songs are catchy and clever—the kind of songs one can easily pick up and hum along, and the dialog links the songs. She still works from handwritten music on the electronic keyboard she uses for accompaniment as musical director.
The only nonfiction characters in the play are Blackbeard, who was killed off Ocracoke Nov. 22, 1718, by Lt. Robert Maynard, and Euphemia Curtis, who really had a boarding house on Ocracoke but about two centuries after Blackbeard.
“It’s total fantasy,” Howard said. In 1715, there was no village here but the colonial legislature recognized the island as Pilot Town, and some ship pilots were housed in the Springer’s Point area.
The show has a conflicted Blackbeard the night before his date with destiny, scruffy sailors growling “Arrghh!” who are interested in the charms of the “village girls” at the boarding house, two young ingénue roles, a bickering husband and wife and comic-relief in the two cooks. There’s a William Howard character “because I had to have a Howard in the show,” Julie said. History says there was a William Howard on Blackbeard’s crew, but Philip cannot verify if he and all the other Howards on the island are descendants.
The 12 to 14 songs and characters have changed over the years depending on who’s in the cast. “I wrote the part of Katherine for Amy because she wanted to be in the play,” she said about her daughter Amy Howard, who is the OPS administrator. Many of the cast members have family who were in it before. Joanie O’Neal, who is a village girl, is the only one who was in the cast before. The costumes are newly designed and built by Linda Ward and Heather Johnson, who also is one of the village girls. Several of the costumes from earlier plays are on view in the Ocracoke Preservation Society. Philip Howard, co-producer with Julie for many years, who also has played Quartermaster William Howard, attended opening night and praised this revival.
“It’s wonderful to do it again,” he said. “It’s the same play as before but it’s been reinvigorated with Charles and Desiree.” “I just loved it,” said islander Cindy Fiore. “It’s great to have some theater on the island.” Julie Howard says the show is pure community theater. “The cast is so enthusiastic,” she said. “In 40 years I don’t think we’ve had a cast with this much energy.”
Ocracoke Alive, which is the successor nonprofit to the Ocracoke Players, produced the show. Half of the tickets for each show will be available online at www.ocrafolkfestival.org/blackbeard-tickets, which includes all the details. The other half will be available, first-come, first-served at the door.