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Living History: TheatreNOW’s ‘Summers at Seabreeze’ moves with power and fun

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Without a doubt, “Summers at Seabreeze” will move audiences. More so, it should have a longterm effect on us as a people still trying to overcome racial strife. Where we’ve come is far and away better in 2015 than it was in 1954, when Seabreeze was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel (therein began Seabreeze’s decline, on the heels of the civil rights movement). Yet, this show allows us to not forget the importance of this history—if anything, it should remind us not to repeat it, too.

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The cast of TheatreNOW's "Summer at Seabreeze," playing through July 25. Courtesy photo

The cast of TheatreNOW’s “Summer at Seabreeze,” playing through July 25. Courtesy photo

In 2015 we still seem to be fighting the racial divide that has cost Americans years of heartache and prejudicial stigma. In the midst of a continuous fight against bigotry and for equal rights, TheatreNOW is hosting a timely original play, penned by its artistic director Zach Hanner. “Summers at Seabreeze” features the story behind Freeman Beach’s Seabreeze—an African American resort, once located north of Snow’s Cut in Carolina Beach.

From 1922 through 1954, Seabreeze drew in thousands of vacationers and even celebrities to its shoreline. They danced at local juke joints, ate the area’s prized clam fritters, fished and crabbed, and were able to enjoy a summer break despite the Jim Crow era of laws that forbade black people from going to public places that white people could easily access. Even more interesting: The Freeman family, who moved to Myrtle Grove Sound in the late 1800s, owned over 100 acres of marshland—something not many black families had the privilege of doing then (the Freemans also owned Carolina Beach and its state park, for that matter).

Perhaps the best show TheatreNOW has hosted to date in its two-year infancy, “Summers at Seabreeze” is thoughtful, funny, reverent, and educational. It features an all-African American cast of upcoming and veteran talent worthy of much applause. While every performance has its strengths,  the storytelling nature really grounds the show. Audiences aren’t merely talked through an important timeline of local history, the history comes to life before their eyes.

Hanner conducted a lot of research for this show. He studied a UNCW thesis on the resort, researched historical documents, and interviewed locals who frequented or lived near Seabreeze. These men and women light up the drop-screen behind the stage, to reveal in their own words what life was like for so many. TheatreNOW always makes terrific use of multimedia to add dimension to their shows; yet, it’s never been more effective than here.

As one of the interviewees recounts the numerous celebrities that visited the resort, Fats Domino—played by Fracaswell Hyman, a.k.a. “Cas”—appears onstage. Fats Domino played The Barn in downtown Wilmington in the mid-20th century. After his show, he couldn’t get a hotel room because of the color of his skin; so, he traveled to Freeman Beach where he knew he’d be welcomed. In one of the juke joints, he played piano and sang for the crowd.

Out of the numerous characters Hyman enacts onstage, his version of Fats Domino most definitely stands out above and beyond. He belts “Ain’t That a Shame” with bubbly vigor and dances with spitfire passion. Every time Hyman appears onstage, he brings vivacity to a scene. His energy is just electric. As well, he’s new to Wilmington’s theatre community but not to the acting biz; he appeared in “Malcom X” and was the creator of the Nickelodeon show “The Famous Jett Jackson.” I can’t wait to see him again—preferably soon. What a joy he is to watch!

The everyday Joes who inhabited Seabreeze bring their own colorfully rich memories to the show, brought to life from the actors’ monologues. My favorite comes from Max Paige—who takes on Alex Freeman, owner of the land. Freeman worked hard to turn wetlands into a viable career, thanks to fishing and to the sawmills who bought the timber he sold from clearing land. When he died, he passed on the property to his family, who eventually commercialized some of the land into a vacation resort.

Paige is the only person in the cast who actually lived through the Seabreeze days. He has a way with a story that captivates; I truly felt like I was on his front porch, waxing yesteryear upon his every syllable. From boat captain to restaurant customer, he speaks with careful enunciation, in a dialect used to pepper time and place in the South. Paige uses phrases like “I knowed” and offers drawn-out soft “Rs” (FOH-ties instead of FOR-ties), pertinent to speech patterns here. He’s a man with quiet fortitude, no matter who he is playing onstage. He makes the audience want to sit up and listen to his every word. He speaks like a true raconteur.

Reid Clark’s take as a moonshiner not only reveals the way Seabreeze’s clubs and restaurants once made money, but it also introduces us to some of the injustices folks had to endure back then. For one, cops often raided the resort to try and find illegalities, like selling alcohol amidst prohibition—especially as Seabreeze picked up in popularity and became a viable financial resort. Clark’s sly demeanor is evocative as we learn about the White Lightnin’ moonshine he sold to local restaurants who in turn sold “special Coke” (one-quarter cola, the rest White Lightnin’). Clark makes a point to give fierce eye contact to the audience, to connect with them—or more so to connect the value of the stories he’s telling. Reid is a true ensemble player, too. As one of his stage companions slipped up on her lines during Saturday’s show, his impromptu line guided her back on track within her monologue.

The ladies of the show are just as impactful, but especially Rica Marcelle. She kills it during a live performance of “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton (one of my favorite songs, ever). Her grisly growls and saucy attitude really bump up the level of performance in the show. In fact, that’s the main attraction of “Summers at Seabreeze”—aside from the history, it’s fun. The music is my kind of my music, too. Grenoldo Frazier is the man on the keys and he enlivens the show with sounds like Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather.” Though it isn’t played live—rather via pre-recorded footage on the drop screen—again it transports the audience to time and place. However, should this show ever see a redux—and it should—I hope it’s in a larger venue where live music can be incorporated in every song and all of it is sung live by the actors.

The choreography, done by Techmoja’s Kevin Lee-y Green, is effective but contained into a very small space that creates obstructions—not only in movement but in the audience’s eye line. I want to see it bigger and better. “Wade in the Water” will bring a tear to the eye already; add to it more room for the actors to move and their voices to its music, and it will be goosebump-inducing.

The set is the best thus far at TheatreNOW, too. Aside from the screen showing black and white photos of the real Seabreeze and its landmarks—Daleys Pavilion, Bruce’s Tavern, Sadie’s—the stage is compact with a boat that the captain fishes from, a pier the young teen falls from (a gut-wrenching story performed by Eliccia Nichole), and the restaurant that Miss Ila serves her famed clam fritters out of. And, by the way, those clam fritters are on the TheatreNOW menu.

Chef Denise Gordon serves up fare reminiscent of Seabreeze days. Fluffy, light puffs of breading pop with finely chopped onions and clams, which smack the lips in sweetness. The kielbasa and shrimp from the low-country boil have a delightful taste of richness paired with the sea. A taste of collard-wrapped chicken bursts with earthiness from the greens, yet becomes overwhelmed by a dry chicken breast. Yet the juicy watermelon salad, balanced by peppery arugula, a citrus-y dressing and salty feta, overrides it all in decadence—as does the chef’s insanely delicious coleslaw. Cabbage and kale get a lightly dressed mayo-and-lemon juice treatment for a refreshing bite.

Without a doubt, “Summers at Seabreeze” will move audiences. More so, it should have a longterm effect on us as a people still trying to overcome racial strife. Where we’ve come is far and away better in 2015 than it was in 1954, when Seabreeze was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel (therein began Seabreeze’s decline, on the heels of the civil rights movement). Yet, this show allows us to not forget the importance of this history—if anything, it should remind us not to repeat it, too.

Summers at Seabreeze
4 out of 5 stars
Fri.-Sat., through July 25, 6:30 p.m.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th Street
Tickets: $20-$34

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