John Adams, an eight-year Mount Airy resident, native of Abingdon, Virginia, and semi-retired Hollywood director and producer, has spent a lifetime questioning what happened to “the other man.”
“The other man” is the name given by Adams to the slave who accompanied his great-great-grandfather to fight in the Civil War. His great-great-grandfather returned from the war, but there is no record as to what happened to the unnamed slave. His story, down to his name, has simply melted into the mists of time, unrecorded and unremembered.
With “In the Shadow of the Mountain,” a new musical in two acts which is in rehearsal for a production at Surry Arts Council’s Andy Griffith Theater March 24-26, Adams has attempted to address history’s erasure of “the other man” and finally give him a voice.
“This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” said Adams. He has never written a play before, nor anything else since he was an advertising copywriter at the beginning of his career. “I’ve been a producer and a director, but writing hasn’t been my profession for a very long time.”
“The Civil War is like a mountain that casts a shadow to this day, echoing through history,” said Adams, speaking of the imagery which gave the show its title. “We’re still living it today. This is where we are, and it’s up to us where we go from here. We do have the power to change things.”
Adams wrote the libretto, or book, and the lyrics to the show’s songs, but called in four composers to write the music: Helen White, Judson Haskins, Thomas Jackson and Elizabeth Gatewood. Adams wanted to use several distinct styles of music and selected composers skilled in each of them.
Thomas Jackson, who lives in King, was approached early on by Adams, and did a lot of the orchestrations and arrangements for the show and ultimately wrote some songs. Jackson also acts, and plays one of the brothers at the heart of the story. They are divided by the war, one in the Confederate Army and one in the Union Army. His character is the brother who fights for the Confederacy, bringing a slave along with him, as Adams’ ancestor did.
“It’s a fantastic play,” said Jackson. “You get something new from it every time you read it. That’s a sign of a great play. It breaks a lot of boundaries and has a good message. It’s controversial, but it makes people think and consider American traditions.”
Some period music was used, “Shenandoah,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” among them, and Adams wanted some songs reminiscent of the hymns in the Broadman Hymnal from the Southern Baptist Church of his youth. He also wanted some more typical Broadway-sounding show tunes as well as slave work songs and spirituals.
“I’m not trying to represent African-American culture, but I want it to be as authentic as possible,” Adams said.
Shane Smith, who is a member of the play’s slave chorus, introduced Adams to her choir director and members of her choir. They listened to the music and gave feedback.
Marie Nicholson, another local choir director, also sings in the chorus. “This is the kind of play African-Americans can benefit from,” said Nicholson. “When he told me this story, I saw that it was a process. He may not be able to speak for black voices, but John has done an excellent job of representing the black community. He has written what comes down to a civil rights story. You get to see how we got to where we are.”
“John wanted to know what he could do to get more black people to be a part of Mount Airy theater,” said Jerome Temoney at a rehearsal Thursday.
Temoney didn’t have an easy answer. “A lot of these kids in this show have been involved in theater since they were little,” he said, but “it’s all church and sports for black people. I’d never heard of plays growing up, and had never been in a play until I played Jim in ‘Big River,’” — a move Temoney credits Adams with encouraging him to make.
Though Adams did not direct “Big River,” he has directed shows at the arts council with solid parts for black actors — “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Aside from the quartet of composers, whose home bases range from Mount Airy to Sante Fe, Adams has assembled an extensive team of technical advisors. Greg Cheek is using his experience with Civil War re-enactments to provide the production with authentic reproductions of Civil War era muskets that are manufactured in Italy as well as uniforms for soldiers. Bill and Patricia Pugsley, veteran prop masters on the local theater scene, have built a cannon.
“It will be a special experience,” said Tanya Jones, arts council director, “John thinks of everything. This is a very large production. It’s the biggest original piece that we’ve done.”
Adams said debuting the production in Mount Airy was an easy choice. “I live here. This is the 10th production I’ve directed here, which works out to three years of my life I’ve given to this town. I want the arts scene here to be as good as it can be. That’s the easy answer.”
Adams moved past the easy answer and said, “I’ve been so lucky in my career. I’ve been able to work in New York, in L.A., in London, but when people say to me, ‘you’re a Hollywood director,’ I have to tell them, no, I’m not, I’m from Appalachia. I was born in Abingdon, Virginia.”
“And if it weren’t for Tanya (Jones), I would never have directed for the stage. She asked me to do a play at the arts council years ago, and I told her I had no stage experience. I had only directed for television. She got me to try it, and I loved it. So, it all started in Mount Airy.”
“John has written a masterpiece,” said Garry Wadell, a Winston-Salem actor who has worked with Adams in the past, as Hoke in “Driving Miss Daisy” and Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “It was essentially a no-brainer,” he said of his decision to do the play when he found out Adams had written a part especially for him. “That is flattering. Especially coming from John Adams.”
Sylvester Allen Jr. has been driving from his home in Burlington to rehearse the show, a drive he said is about two hours each way. “This is something very unique,” he said. “You’re assisting in creating this role for the first time. Everyone who comes along after will be copying what you did. As an actor, I had to do it. Even if it took three hours.”
Opening night for “In the Shadow of the Mountain” is March 24 at 7:30 p.m. with additional performances Sunday March 25 at 3 p.m. and Monday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seats are $15. Call 336-786-1604 or visit surryarts.org to purchase tickets.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.