A decade ago Zach Hanner wrote a piece for the StarNews about Seabreeze, a resort once located in Freeman Beach, just north of Snow’s Cut. The beach was one of two that existed for the African American population in the ealy part of the 20th century.
“It used to be a thriving resort, hosting thousands of people each summer,” Hanner details. There were hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and nightclubs specifically geared toward the black community. Known for its clam fritters, swinging R&B, which permeated juke joints left and right, and dancing—known to be the inspiration for the Carolinas’ state dance, the shag—Seabreeze hustled and bustled until Hurrcane Hazel devastated the area in the mid-’50s. Hanner—artistic director for TheatreNOW—decided its legacy and early impact during the Jim Crow era would make a telling story. So, he began penning the historical script for stage last year.
“As a kid growing up in small-town Pilot Mountain with an African American godmother, I spent a lot of time in her neighborhood, ‘The Hill,’ and developed an affinity for her family’s culture,” Hanner tells. “In addition, with [TheatreNOW] in ‘The Bottom’ neighborhood [at 19 S. 10th Street,] I wanted to create a show that was for the black community in particular but could also be enjoyed by everyone.”
The plot centers on the historical significance of Seabreeze, beginning in the mid-1800s with Alexander and Charity Freeman who moved to Myrtle Grove Sound. The Freemans were a family of prominent landowners and at one point even owned all of Carolina Beach and its state park. They opened Seabreeze in 1922, after a descendent passed down 2,000 acres of land that had been parceled and designed as waterfront properties for relatives.
“The story is told through monologues, some based on actual figures from history, and some based on amalgams of historical facts and personal anecdotes,” Hanner details. “We meet some of the colorful characters of Seabreeze, again some based on real people and some constructed combinations.”
Hanner held auditions and cast eight black actors, including Maxwell Paige. “He’s the only person in our cast that actually spent time out at Seabreeze during its heyday,” Hanner says, “and we’ve been really grateful to have his stories and experience to lead us through the production.”
Also in the show is Kim Pacheco, who has been commuting from Raleigh. Fracaswell Hyman, a.k.a. “Cas,” (“Malcom X” and creator of Nickelodeon show “The Famous Jett Jackson”) brings his veteran experience, along with local comedian Reid Clark and his mother Sharon Hughes Clark. Three newbies to TheatreNOW also join the ranks: Eliccia Nichole, Ezekiel Nelson and Rica Marcelle.
“One of my underlying goals as a director and writer is to create more diversity in our theater community,” Hanner tells. “By providing opportunities to less-experienced actors of color, our theater family will grow and improve as time goes by.”
“Summers at Sebreeze” will include music by local pianist Grenoldo Frazier. In 1972 Frazier toured with “Journey Into Blackness” and “Harlem Heydey,” an anthology of African American music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“We couldn’t make it work to have him onstage, but we shot video of him performing so some of his songs will be Grenoldo singing for the folks dancing onstage, and other times he’ll be playing instrumentals for singers to sing along with,” Hanner explains.
Audiences will hear Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather.” Kevin Lee-y Green of Techmoja Dance Company will choreograph steps to “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” as well as “Wade in the Water.”
Hanner did a lot of research for the show, which included the help of many. He contacted Tab Ballis, who’s currently researching the origins of the shag, and researched a masters thesis article written by Jenny Edwards from the 1990s.
“That document was incredibly valuable, in that it provided a thorough timeline and lots of specifics, like place names and proper names of the characters that lived there,” Hanner says.
He also held interviews with folks who lived during the Seabreeze era. Snippets from their discussions will be projected as part of the show. “There were great stories both from interview subjects and from reading,” Hanner says. “I liked reading about ‘The Snake Man,’ a spooky Native American fellow that ran a carnival and sideshow out that way. There was also a no-nonsense ferry driver that took folks from Seabreeze over to Freeman Beach and, of course, some of the celebrities that graced the piers at Seabreeze over the years.”
Hanner has integrated numerous old photographs, provided by UNCW’s library and Cape Fear Museum’s current exhibition “Reflections on Black and White.” The set will consist of one of the diners of the era, a pier and a fishing boat. “The show will weave in and out of projections, music and monologues, and the pace will hopefully keep people’s attention,” Hanner says.
“Summers at Seabreeze” comes with a taste of the era, too. Known for its clam fritters, the signature Seabreeze item will be on the menu, as will a low-country boil, with shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes, and other soul-food items. “One thing that makes the show resonate for dinner audiences is the food aspect,” Hanner agrees. “It was such an identifying part of Seabreeze, and our chef creations play their part to recreate a sort of culinary sense memory.”
The resort never rebuilt after Hazel hit. More so, it didn’t need to once the Civil Rights Act of 1965 took place. “I think the story of Seabreeze is largely interesting because the place no longer exists,” Hanner shares. “The fact that this place not only became popular but was one of the outstanding resorts on the East Coast for African Americans speaks to its special nature.”
Though the curtain lifts June 19, it won’t be the end of the subject for Hanner once it closes on July 25. The director already is considering its content perfect for a documentary. “I really only had around six or seven people respond to my interview requests but, fortunately, they all had wonderful stories to tell!” Hanner says. “I tried to contact a few other folks to participate but they didn’t seem to interested. However, if they were to see this show and want to contribute to a sequel, I would love to chat with anyone who has Seabreeze stories.”