Finding Little Bethel

cover image for Finding Little Bethel

ACT III: A sense of place

For much of his career, Paul Green found much-needed solitude in a small log cabin in the sprawling woods behind his home in Chapel Hill. From his rocking chair just feet from his fireplace, Green could gaze out the window and admire the beauty of a nearby dairy farm. He could write. He could study plants. He could think to himself.

The cabin provided more than just refuge from a home bustling with the joyful, yet distracting, noise of children and eventually grandchildren. Its rustic feel, void of all modern devices, reminded him of Harnett County.

Ten years after Green’s death, that cabin was taken apart and rebuilt in the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, about a mile away from his home. Visitors today can walk right in to Green’s personal space and learn about him, his works and his love of botany and herbology.

Bert Wallace has spent more time in that cabin than most. Much like his visits to the old church and cornfield in Linden, Wallace sought inspiration inside those four walls as he took on the monumental task of converting a 422- page novel to a 90-minute stage production.

“Paul Green was very much about place,” Wallace says. “You look at his outdoor dramas and his symphonic dramas — those plays are meant to be performed in
a certain place. Lost Colony isn’t meant to be done in New York. It’s at home in the Outer Banks in a place like Manteo.

“To me, this cabin represented a strong connection Green had with Harnett County,” he adds. “This Body The Earth is clearly based on this environment. I spent a lot of time just driving around this area — a lot of time in church yards, swamps and cotton fields. I didn’t want to take on a project like this without immersing myself in the environment. It was very inspiring to do that.”

Wallace compares This Body The Earth to “Gone With the Wind” and “Grapes of Wrath” in terms of scope — it’s an epic story, following Alvin Barnes from his early childhood to (spoiler alert) his early death. Characters come and go (more than a few are introduced and die within a single chapter). Settings change constantly as Barnes searches for fertile land.

These landscapes and quick character arcs might have worked well on the screen, but on stage — where scene changes are grueling tasks and cast members are limited — it presented a challenge. Wallace tackled the first problem by taking a character introduced and killed
off in the second chapter and making him the play’s narrator after his death. Rassie, the youngest son of the neighboring black family who tenant farmed on the same land as Barnes’ parents, befriends young Alvin in their first scene together and eight pages later, is buried in an unmarked cottonfield after succumbing to “the scourge.”

In those eight pages, though, Barnes’ friendship with Rassie molds the young man’s views on blacks — views that didn’t sit well with many whites in North Carolina in the 30s.

“I have to credit my wife. She suggested making Rassie the narrator,” Wallace says. “He became the best way to tell the audience where they were at this point of the production. He also allowed me to get in a lot Green’s beautiful prose.”

If Marsha Warren had her doubts coming in, there was newfound optimism that Wallace could pull it off when he pitched Rassie as the narrator.

“Bert just had an amazing idea,” she says. “It was very clever having Rassie there the whole way. It made you feel good that he got to be around. Paul Green used a historian in Lost Colony, and for this adaptation, I feel it brings the audience along. It’s a very clever device.”

Another challenge for Wallace was the book’s language — while Green was progressive in his racial views, he didn’t soften the blow when it came to his white characters’ use of racial slurs. “Negro” and its harsher alternative were prevalent in much of Green’s writing, including This Body The Earth. And the dialogue written for black characters was heavy on dialect. What may have been historically accurate could come off as racist or caricature today.

Wallace had to decide whether he would use the controversial N-word in his production — a similar problem he faced a few years back when the theatre department presented Big River, a musical based on Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” In obtaining the rights to that play, Wallace was given the option of using a version with “softer” language — an option he took.

In his first draft of This Body The Earth for the stage, Wallace kept the strong language and racial slurs. He decided to keep it out as rehearsals approached.

“The language is very true to the period,” he says, “but even if that’s the case, I didn’t want to throw up barriers for these young actors and the audience. I can try to argue why it’s authentic and why that language is important to these characters, but when I finally decided the use of that word does more harm than good. It’s very different seeing it written on a page than it is to be in the presence of a human being uttering that word. The sound in the air is very different.”

Barnes’ compassion for Rassie and Rassie’s family were in line with Green’s real-life views on blacks. Green was publicly criticized for working with noted black author Richard Wright on the adaptation of Wright’s book, Native Son, and the New York Herald-Tribune once wrote of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, In Abraham’s Bosom: “[It’s] so well-written and so well-played that even Southerners who applaud Dixie the loudest may be urged to sympathy.”