Activities for your visit

Arts Week play to recreate the time when circus animals roamed Ocracoke’s beach

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By Connie Leinbach

Legend has it that once upon a time there were lions and tigers and bears on the Ocracoke beach.

An original play by Desirée Christa Ricker , “The Tale of the Black Squall,” will recreate this story in a free performance 7 p.m. Thursday, April 13, in the Ocracoke School gym.

When the Black Squall wrecked off Ocracoke in April of 1861, the storm washed ashore the

remnants of a circus troupe returning to the United States from an engagement in Havana, Cuba.

“It’s a pretty amazing story,” said David Tweedie, president of Ocracoke Alive, a nonprofit arts organization that presents the Ocrafolk Festival and partners with the school for supplemental arts education during the winter semester.

David Tweedie and Desirée Christa Ricker. Photo: C Leinbach

The play is based on an as-told-by yarn from Arcade (Kade) Williams, who was 17 in 1861 when she saw these animals from Nixon’s Circus following the Black Squall’s foundering off the island.

The following are Kade’s words as transcribed in the 1950s by island native Walter Howard (ca. 1897 to ca. 1967):

“Well, the beach was strowed with animals from Lord knows where. Tigers, lions, bears, and there was one there whose neck was longer than his body.

“That was all kinds of things that washed up on the beach,” she continued. “Even to bales of hay and fodder. They had that for the animals, I guess. Silks and satins, and costumes by the hundreds. The purtiest you ever seed. Tents. I’ll bet there was a thousand of ‘em. The men folks made sails for their boats out of them and one big tent I remember they put that up out on the beach hills and held a camp meeting in it.”

Two short items from area newspapers at that time say that while the Black Squall did indeed wreck off Ocracoke the cargo was sugar and horses.

Although islander Philip Howard also heard the cargo was less exotic than the legend, he heard of Kade’s account from Walter Howard. That entire story can be read on Philip’s July 7, 2007, online blog here.

Ricker, Ocracoke Alive’s artistic director and the stage director of “The Black Squall,” said the audio will be pre-recorded and the student actors will mime the action. Ocracoke Alive may also provide a simultaneous Spanish audio translation.  

In the last few years, Ocracoke Alive has partnered with the school to provide supplemental arts education through the Arts Partnership program, and has assisted in producing Arts Week for which “The Black Squall” is the culmination.

Arts Partnership activities this spring have included elements that will be featured in the production: Fig cake-making with Lauren Strohl, printmaking with Robert Chestnut, Ocracoke quilt making with Sundae Horn, Ocracoke Square dance with Philip Howard, interpretive dance with Courtney Conner, choral singing with Paul McKibbins, studio recording with Gary Mitchell and set and costume design with Mark Brown, Kitty Mitchell, and Jeff Schleicher.

 Arts Week, held annually each April at the school for the last 10 years, includes a variety of artistic endeavors for all of the grades. Since the Black Squall involved circus animals, it provided the theme for this year’s program that includes juggling and mime arts by Jef the Mime and character movement with Paperhand Puppets, both of whom are regular performers with the Ocrafolk Festival. 

Arts Week will also include steel drums with Scott Paulson and Barb Smith, percussion with Jubal Creech and jewelry-making with Janet Harriman. Each of these partners’ projects will be reflected in the show, Tweedie said.

While the Black Squall performance will be free, and is supported by a number of businesses and individuals, Ocracoke Alive is seeking donations to support the estimated $15,000 that the Arts Partnership and Arts Week will cost.

Tax-deductible contributions can be made online at ocracokealive.org or by sending a check to Ocracoke Alive, P.O. Box 604, Ocracoke, NC 27960