Editor’s note: Last year, after a 20-year hiatus, Ocracoke Alive revived the original musical about Ocracoke, “A Tale of Blackbeard.” This year, the show is being presented Monday nights through Aug. 17 in the Ocracoke School Gym, which has more seating than last year. It has a new cast and director, and though some cast members returned from last year, they may be in different roles.
The photos with this story are from this year’s production, but the story below tells the history of the musical. This year’s cast and crew are listed at the end.
Text and photos 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 part-time islander Julia Howard, the show (runs Monday nights at 8 in the Ocracoke School Gym.)
“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 went well, 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 Julia 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 in the winter, and at one of the cast parties, Danny said, ‘What we need is a play about Blackbeard.’ ”
The late Garrish ran the Community Store and was an Ocracoke icon, she said. There were 500 people living on the island and a nascent tourist industry.
“He was a great singer and had a good stage presence,” Howard said about Danny, who played Blackbeard’s cook.
During the fall and winter of 1973 and ’74, she worked on 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. Howard 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 about the play.
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,” Howard 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.
The costumes are newly designed and built by Linda Ward and Heather Johnson. Several of the costumes from earlier plays are on view in the Ocracoke Preservation Society.
Ocracoke Alive, which is the successor nonprofit to the Ocracoke Players, produced the show.
Again for this year, half of the tickets for each show will be available online at http://www.ocrafolkfestival.org/blackbeard-tickets, which includes all the details. The other half will be available, first-come, first-served at the door.
Players this year are: Rob Touhey, Blackbeard; Waylon Underwood, Richard; Bill Cole, Ezekiel; Mark Brown and Tom Pahl, William Howard; Peyton Piquard, helmsman; David Tweedie, Oliver Farthingham; Trisha Davis, Victoria Farthingham; Caroline Temple, Elizabeth Farthingham; Emilia Jordan and Katie Kinnion, Katherine Farthingham; Megan Spencer, Miss Euphemia; DeAnna Locke, Marjorie O’Neal.
Sailors are Derek Gilliam, Nathan Modlin, John Brodisch II and Parker Gaskill. Village girls are Callie Daivsson, Chrisi Gaskill, Amy Howard, Lori Masaitis and Mary-Chandler Storrs.
Directed by Courtney Conner and Desiree Christa Ricker; Julia Howard, book/music & lyrics/musical director/accompanist; Charles Temple/Mark Brown, set design; Charles Temple and crew, lighting design; Desiree Christa Ricker, choreography; Molly Lovejoy, sound; Linda Ward & Heather Johnson, costume design.