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Union Springs still had its charm

How does a town as tiny as Union Springs put on a play that matches the kind of production you’d expect to see in a metropolis – and then repeat it?

What it takes is imagination, a certain amount of luck and, as Colleen Forrer puts it, “pure stubbornness.”

I quizzed Forrer and her daughter, Xan Morrow, recently as Union Springs was preparing for the third production of “Conecuh People,” a play that resonates with anyone who has ties to the rural South. Forrer and Morrow are active in the Tourism Council of Bullock County, which brought the play to life.

Union Springs is like a lot of other small Alabama towns. Once bustling centers of commerce in an agriculture-based economy, they’ve seen jobs disappear and people with them.

So, like a lot of other small towns, Union Springs and the Tourism Council were looking for a way to stand out and to capitalize on the area’s assets. The outdoors industry – Union Springs bills itself as the “Bird Dog Field Trial Capital of the World” – was already doing well.

What other asset was there? As is often the case, it took fresh eyes to see the possibilities. The asset was Union Springs itself. The town hasn’t lost its turn-of-the century charm, and America is a nation of tourists looking for places that offer something different. The challenge was to get people to come and see.

That’s where imagination and the play came in.

BullohCountynative Allison Barnett and his wife Millie had moved to Union Springs after living inLubbock,Texas. Barnett became president of the Tourism Council. He recalled that Lubbock staged a Texas-sized outdoor history play. Why not do something like that in Union Springs? Allan Swafford, a drama teacher and critic in

Montgomery helped the Tourism Council connect with Dr. David Dye, dean of the College of Comm-unicationand Fine Arts at what was then Troy State University, and Adena Moree, director of theater at the university.

The idea of a big outdoor play didn’t work out, Forrer said, but at a meeting with the Tourism Council Dye “laid that book on the table and he said, ‘Here’s your play.'”

The book was “Conecuh People,” by Wade Hall, a Bullock Countynative who had graduated fromTroy State and become a university professor in Kentucky. It was the product of interviews that Hall had conducted in Bullock County when he realized that the generation that had formed him was dying off.

The Tourism Council didn’t react with immediate enthusiasm. Then Dye “read part of it, and we got to liking it,” Forrer said.

Troy State applied for a grant to get the book turned into a play, but the grant was denied. Allison and Millie Barnett stepped up and said they would sponsor the writing of the play. Ty Adams, a Clayton native and Troy graduate who is now a playwright in New York, was selected. In seeking a unifying theme for what was a series of vignettes, Adams realized that the central figure was Wade Hall.

“Wade had no clue it was going that way,” Morrow said. “I don’t think Wade knew it was going to be that way until he saw it really performed and it struck him that ‘I’m the star.’ I don’t think he intended for it to be about him. It was about these Conecuh people…but there had to be a hub for all of the spokes, and that was Wade.”

After premiering at Troy State, the play became the property of the Tourism Council. Hopes that the university could stage subsequent performances in Union Springs didn’t work out, and it fell to the council to find a way to present the play.

The first step was finding a director. They hit a home run with Margie Benson, who had directed “the kind of thing we were trying to do.” (“I heard about her in the beauty shop,” Forrer said.) Benson was able to recruit actors from around the state, “and we’ve got some wonderful locals that have never acted before.”

Another piece of good fortune was acquiring the old Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Union Springs as a home for the Red Door Theater.

That first year the Tourism Council’s worry quickly turned from “how will we sell tickets?” to “how will we tell people there are no tickets available.” So last year the play’s run was extended to include Thursday night performances. This year the play is April 27-29 and May 4-6.

There are other activities surrounding the play, including open houses at local churches, the Rolling Store and the historic city jail and supper at theFirstBaptistChurch, right next door to the theater. You can learn more at the Tourism Council’s web site, www.unionspringsalabama.com

And there’s one welcome change. Last year the fans they handed out – the kind people used to wave in church – were functional. This year, the theater has air conditioning, but they’ll hand out fans anyway.

-Bill Brown can be contacted at377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at williambrown1@charter.net