Finding Little Bethel

cover image for Finding Little Bethel

ACT II: Let’s see what he can do

E. Bert Wallace also grew up in the South.

Born Edward Bert Wallace (he would later drop the “Edward,” but keep the “E”), his parents weren’t farmers, but he’d often visit aunts and uncles in rural Alabama; their tin-roof houses, farmland and family dinners a lasting memory from his childhood. He admits it’s a loose connection he has with Paul Green — raised on a North Carolina tobacco farm over 100 years earlier — but it’s an important one.

Wallace studied drama and English at Furman University before earning his master’s degree in playwriting and dramaturgy from the University of Alabama. As a playwright, several of his works — We Shall Fire the Southern Heart, Porcupine Meringue, Hopeful, Quem Queritis: Whom Seek Ye? and The Purse, to name a few — have made it to the stage.

Both Wallace and Green are and were professors. Both men are/were firm believers in a “sense of place” in their writings. But the real connection Bert Wallace feels with Paul Green is Campbell University.

Wallace, the associate professor of Campbell’s theatre arts program, works today where a century ago, Green attended classes, led the debate team and Philologian Society, pitched for the baseball team and ran track, worked on the yearbook and joined a club of future lawyers. Wallace’s office and the stage where his students have performed isn’t far from where the Paul Green Outdoor Theatre once stood on campus.

Chapel Hill is where Green flourished as a writer, but Buies Creek is where he became a man.

“He would have known the schoolmaster, the founder, J.A. Campbell very well,” says Wallace. “He was very much a part of the community here, even after his fame.”

Professor Bert Wallace found solace and inspiration in the cemetery across from a small church in rural Linden, North Carolina. The church was even featured on the playbill for Wallace’s adaptation when debuted by Campbell University’s theatre arts program in April. Photo by Hannah Hunsinger

In April 2012, Campbell University collaborated with the Harnett County Library and the Chapel Hill-based Paul Green Foundation to celebrate Green’s legacy with a two-day event. The Paul Green Festival featured actors performing scenes from Green’s dramas, participants dressed in Lost Colony-inspired costumes, bluegrass music, the showing of the 1934 film “Carolina” (based on Green’s play The House of Connelly), lectures and stories, baseball games and more. Before the festival, Wallace was approached by the Foundation and asked if he could direct a Paul Green play — an attempt to “rekindle” the Green-Campbell connection in time for the event. Wallace was involved in the festival’s planning, but he didn’t think at the time he could pull off a Green play with Campbell students. So the play didn’t happen.

But a relationship was formed. Wallace met Marsha Warren, the Foundation’s exective director, and the two stayed in touch. Warren and the Foundation used the festival to reintroduce one of Green’s two novels — a book not often included among his most notable works, but one that many North Carolina historians often include in their lists of Green’s most important contributions to literature.

This Body The Earth, published in 1935, chronicled the dreams and ambitions, the burdens and the struggles of a poor white man named Alvin Barnes, a North Carolina sharecropper in the early 1900s. Barnes was molded by Green as a man who refused to accept his “lower”
lot in life and a man who believed black people in his community deserved better lives as well (certainly a progressive thought at the time).

Barnes’ story is tragic in every sense of the word — Wallace calls the book “Grapes of Wrath” based in North Carolina — but it’s also an unflinching, true-to-life look at the struggles white and black families endured in the rural South in the decades following the Civil War. Author John Ehle once called it, “The most important novel by one of North Carolina’s most important writers.”

Wallace’s wife, Kelley, picked up a copy of the book at the festival and began reading it at home. Before long, she was telling her husband how good it was. “She kept telling
me it would be a really interesting thing to adapt for the stage,” Wallace recalls. “Eventually, I read it and said, ‘Yes. We have to do this.’”

Warren never had This Body The Earth in mind when she approached Wallace before the festival. Her reaction to Wallace’s pitch wasn’t a confident one.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way it can be on stage,’” she says. “It has to be a movie. My favorite parts of the book — and there are many — these are all scenes I felt like I could see on a big screen. In fact, there was a guy who talked to us from Hollywood years back about a movie, but he didn’t turn out to be too reliable. So when Bert suggested it for the stage …”

“I told her, ‘Let’s see what he can do,’” says Laurence Avery, poet, playwright, author, Paul Green historian and former chairman of the English department at UNC- Chapel Hill.

Avery spent a lot of time with Green in the author’s final years, editing hundreds of his letters from as far back as 1916, many of which appeared in “A Southern Life: Letters of Paul Green,” published in 1994. Avery was a founding board member of the Paul Green Foundation, formed a year after Green’s death in 1982 to not only protect, preserve and perpetuate Green’s works, but also to support the arts and human and civil rights.

This Body The Earth is an important book to the Foundation. The book, they maintain, says as much about Green’s human rights beliefs as anything else he’s written.

“We all love this book,” says Warren, who joined the Foundation in 1991. “Bert just had an amazing idea. I was skeptical at first, but eventually we were all pretty excited.”