By Peter Vankevich
A Tale of Blackbeard returned to Ocracoke last year, performed weekly to a sold-out audience throughout the summer. Recently it was announced that the play would be back again for the 2015 season. The story of a Tale of Blackbeard and its history on Ocracoke starts with Julie Howard, the musical’s composer. The play has been performed off and on at Ocracoke since its first performances in the summer of 1974, with many cast members over the years.
Julie moved to Ocracoke with her family in June of 1972. Her love of music began when she started taking piano lessons at age six. In her early teens she added organ and harp to her music skills. Hailing from Hagerstown, MD, she majored in English with a minor in music at Gettysburg College.
The winter following her arrival on Ocracoke, she got involved with the island theater group and performed in “a wonderful little melodrama” called No, No, A Million Times No! (Only a Farmer’s Daughter) by Eskel Crawford and Bud Tomkins.
At the cast party after the final show, she recounted, “We were sitting around saying how wonderful it was that all of us who wanted to play music or perform could do so for our peers on the island. Then the incomparable Danny Garrish said, ‘We really ought to have a play about Blackbeard and we could do it for the tourists in the summer.’ I said ‘ That’s a great suggestion; perhaps I could do something about it.’ I thought about the idea throughout the summer, and in the winter I sat down and wrote A Tale of Blackbeard.”
The play was first performed in the summer of 1974 at the school recreation hall, which was an old navy building that had been moved to the school property after the island’s navy base closed in the mid-1940s. “We used the school campus since the theater group was then a branch of the school PTA. That first year, we had a wonderful turnout of locals and visitors and decided to do the play again the next year.”
At the end of the 1975 season, the building was closed. Eventually it was moved again and restored, and is now known as the Ocracoke Oyster Company. Julie thinks that some of the remnants of the old stage can still be seen inside.
In 1978, the play was moved to the porch of the Community Store and thus became an outdoor drama. Back then the porch had a large L-shape configuration and served well as a stage.
“We had a sign asking people to bring blankets and chairs,” Howard said. “Performing outside had many challenges. We had dogs occasionally wandering on stage and plenty of mosquitoes that bothered not only the audience, but also the performers.
“The play is about Blackbeard, of course, but actually it tells the story of a lot of characters, such as the young fellow who jumps ship and the fussy Farthingham family. There are lots of little romance ideas and twinkles in the eyes among the nine principal characters.”
The play is a figment of Howard’s imagination.
“However, there really was a woman named Euphemia Curtis who ran a boarding house on Ocracoke in the 1800s–much later than Blackbeard’s time,” she said. “I took her lovely, mellifluous name for one of the main characters in my play.
“I love being able to accompany the play every year. I’m not so comfortable singing or speaking on stage, but put me before a keyboard and I’m right at home.”
Listen to excerpts from a Tale of Blackbeard:
The Pirate Life
All songs copyright by Julie Howard, 1991, 2014