LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar travels up to Sneads Ferry for community theatre in its purest form
“There is a box of books, a statue of a little boy reading a book and a concrete bench in your truck. Just FYI for when you get up tomorrow AM,” I warned Jock. “I thought it would be easier to drop the bench off at the Market Street house, but not at 11:45 at night.”
Jock gave me a quizzical look, took a sip of beer and agreed that almost midnight was no time to try to unload a concrete bench. What can I say? He’s very supportive of my decision-making process.
“So you went to Sneads Ferry to see a play and bought books?” he asked, looking meaningfully at the books that have overtaken the house.
OK—he’s mostly supportive of my decision-making process.
“I’m not sure you understand the meaning of ‘night off,’” Jock added.
I began to recount my adventures for him in Sneads Ferry. It began a few weeks ago with an invitation to drop by the Sneads Ferry Community Theatre for an evening of entertainment. “Radio Suspense Theatre” was on the bill—a show about producing a live radio drama in the 1940s. Now, most weekend evenings I am reviewing a show in Wilmington, so getting a night off to drive up to Sneads Ferry takes some finagling.
Oh, and I needed to borrow a vehicle.
The stars aligned Azalea Festival weekend. So while the rest of Wilmington was enjoying Duran Duran, I wound my way up Highway 17 and back in time.
The first visit I remember to Sneads Ferry was to do a story on the Shrimp Festival for the StarNews in the early 2000s. Outside of a visit to a boatyard with my friend John, and a bizarre but lovely evening retrieving a desk with Anthony, I haven’t been back. In the meantime, the lovely sun-dappled roads have burst forth with apartments, condominiums and housing developments.
“I suppose this is for housing related to Camp Lejeune?” I asked the woman at a thrift store I stopped in on my drive.
She confirmed my hypothesis and rattled on about Marines as a customer base. Looking around the bare building (I have been to yard sales with more inventory), I couldn’t imagine there was much customer base. The sign outside had advertised booth rental for consignors, but the entrepreneur’s calculator that runs constantly in my brain wasn’t adding up to enough income to survive. I can’t help the constant low-level hum I hear whenever I walk into a business. I calculate overhead and investment against likely return on investment. But I put together a stack of books to purchase, mostly lured in by the illustrated James Herriot (to read aloud with the dogs and Jock) and asked for a dinner recommendation.
“Madison’s” was the unequivocal answer. Buried in the directions was a strong endorsement for fried chicken. I wished her well with the Marines and headed out in search of a memorable repast.
Madison’s is apparently the Casey’s Buffet of Sneads Ferry—just without Larry Casey’s bonhomie and his Southern wife Gina’s attention to detail. I had two hours until the show started, so I settled in for a long dinner with three tables of law-enforcement officers who were deeply concerned about the weather prediction for the next few days. The waitress asked me several times if I was OK. I was crying almost uncontrollably into a plate of hushpuppies.
“Yes, it’s just…“ I indicated the book I was reading. “Kenneth Branagh just writes so beautifully about seeing Deek Jacobi play ‘Hamlet’ for the first time and meeting Olivier. I’m sorry I’m just a bit overwhelmed.”
“It’s OK, honey,” she reassured me.
I debated explaining that Branagh directed “Thor” with Tom Hiddleston, and that Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh who played Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind.” But this nice lady was at work, and if we started talking about movies, it might go on for hours—and I didn’t want to get her in trouble. Instead, she patted my arm, I thanked her, and she headed off to check on the table of deputies. I wiped my tears and pressed forward with the memoir. Branagh is pretentious, yes. But the body of work supports it—and, frankly, he is a beautiful writer who has met and worked with some of the greatest performance artists of our time.
Eventually it was obvious I had to leave or face the possibility of eating an entire pan of banana pudding with Nilla wafers. Maturity won out and I headed in search of the performance space for the evening.
The billboard at the turnoff advertised the play for the evening and regular bingo nights. Someone hastily had slapped a “No Bingo Tonight” sticker over the part about bingo. Well, I thought. It is sort of nice to see the arts trump bingo. But I am biased.
Sneads Ferry has one truly important and earth-shaking event each year: The Shrimp Festival. The grounds around the community center have been transformed into a permanent site for the event, with a bandstand, creosoted electrical poles in the ground with electrical meters for the cooking stations, and a permanent picnic shelter with tables overlooks the whole tableau. The community center is a one-story, khaki-colored, metal building surrounded by really lovely landscaping. You know the feeling when someone really loves a place and takes great pride in it’s appearance? That’s the feeling at The Shrimp Festival grounds and community center. But it isn’t just pride of place; it is more and it happens inside.
In the lobby easels were set up with pictures and programs from previous productions, including “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Always A Bridesmaid.”
That Jones Hope Wooten stuff is always a crowd pleaser, I thought. It certainly fills the coffers for Big Dawg; I hope it does for Sneads Ferry Community Theatre.
It is a rare weekend I am not in a theatre seat. We have so much happening in Wilmington, it is not unusual to have two or even three shows to review before Monday morning at 8 a.m.
But this was different.
No annual theatre awards at Thailan Hall. No one juggling rehearsal and performance schedules with film work. No other shows to compete with for box-office dollars.
This was community theatre in its purest form: a group of people who get together to put on show—like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. They are there to spend time with people they enjoy, to broaden their horizons, deepen their experiences, and share something with their community.
In front of me, a tiny lady with a cane was helped to her seat by her beautiful high school-aged granddaughter. They moved at a glacial pace, but when the show started and actresses began singing hits from the ‘40s the lady started snapping her fingers, bobbing up and down in her seat, and singing along with the performers. Watching her I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt this moment was what live theatre could really do: transport people together, across space and time. It is magic that is hard to explain, but it is there, and there is nothing else quite like it. That is a gift community theatre gives their neighbors each weekend across the country.