Finding Little Bethel

cover image for Finding Little Bethel

ACT IV: A message of hope

This Body The Earth debuted in Ellis Theatre on the night of April 14, the first of four productions in consecutive days. The play chronicling a piece of Harnett County history came a week after another historical day at Campbell — the installation of the University’s fifth president in 129 years. President J. Bradley Creed and members of the Paul Green Foundation were among the audience for opening night — a thrilling moment not only for Bert Wallace, but his students as well.

“The students involved in it — from the actors to the crew — felt a sense of ownership of this play, as they were all the first to ever put it together and perform it,” says Wallace. “They helped create and mold these characters. They shaped many of the changes I made along the way. My general sense is they not only enjoyed the process, but they really did get it. The idea of it — what Paul Green was trying to say.”

To get his students in the right mindset, Wallace took a page from his own preparation and brought them to the same churches, fields and rural settings he visited for inspiration. For senior theatre arts major Tori Shue of Wake Forest, the mini field trips put her character — Alvin Barnes’ wife Ivy Chadbourne — into much better context as she prepared for the role.

Perry Balentine (left) as Alvine Barnes and Justin McKoy as Rassie perform in Bert Wallace’s stage adaptation of Paul Green’s novel, “This Body The Earth,” at Ellis Theatre in April. Photo by Lydia Huth

“Professor Wallace would show us a farm and say, ‘This is where you would have grown up. This is where you would have worked. This mill, this church … they were your life,” says Shue, who also grew up near tobacco farms. “Immersing myself in the surroundings and understanding what kind of towns Lillington and Buies Creek were when this play was set, it definitely helped me.”

Junior communication studies major Perry Balentine picked up This Body The Earth last fall when Wallace first talked about the adaptation. He was drawn to Alvin Barnes and knew immediately that was the character he’d audition for.

“I love the character. He’s very flawed and very interesting,” says Balentine, of Garner. “He has this drive and this determination to succeed in life, yet he has these anger problems and other flaws that hold him back. He’s kind, he’s emotional. He’s a tough no- nonsense guy, yet he’s very kind and loving of other people. I had to be him.”

Balentine and his castmates were the first to breathe life into these characters on the stage — which was both exciting and intimidating.

Campbell students became the first to perform Bert Wallace’s adaptation of
Paul Green’s This Body
The Earth in April. Wallace hopes his screenplay will live on through the support of the Paul Green Foundation and find its way to other university theatre programs. Photos by Lydia Huth

“You look at something like Hamlet or MacBeth, and these are characters that have been done over and over by so many actors who’ve given them so many different interpretations,” Balentine says. “It was nice to do something that had never been done before, to not have to worry whether your audience has seen this done before and whether you’re doing it right.”

Rehearsals for the April production began in January, and the script Wallace had then looked little like the draft he carried into opening night. Scenes that didn’t work well were cut. Other scenes were added. Even the final product debuted to the Campbell community isn’t the final draft, as Wallace continues to work in hopes another producer — possibly someone in Chapel Hill — will see it to the stage.

Regardless of the next step, Wallace has accomplished what he set out to do — introduce a new generation to Paul Green and share an important part of North Carolina’s history. It’s a tragedy, yes, but to Wallace, it’s also a story about hope. He points to a theme that’s prevalent throughout both the book and his play — the stars. They’re mentioned a lot in This Body The Earth (stars were prominent, along with the church in Linden, on the playbill and in Wallace’s set design) — sometimes they’re cold and distant and other times they’re warm and friendly.

More often than not, they represent hope.

“Certainly, Paul Green had hope,” Wallace says. “His message was not that life is bleak and depressing. It can be hard, and it can be sad. But there’s always hope. It’s what drives us.”