On life, love, and losing a friend

Published 12:41 pm Monday, October 30, 2017

“No matter how prepared you think you are for death of a friend, it still comes as a shock, and it still hurts very deeply.”

– Billy Graham

I lost a dear friend this week. Well, Labor Day weekend, actually, but I only found out about their passing away this week, and actually quite by accident when I stumbled across some obituaries in a Chapel Hill newspaper.

Hold it. Didn’t I say a ‘dear friend’? If you’re wondering if I’ve misplaced those words, the answer is no. While we hadn’t spoken to one another in over 20 years – and there’s a reason for that – I’m left with a lifetime of precious memories along with the haunting of ‘what-if’.

I met Rebecca ‘Becky’ Ranson when I was in college at UNC. We both were Dramatic Art majors and in reality, we only collaborated on just a single theater project together.

Reflecting back, it’s one I’m most proud of – our work together in 1974 with the staging of the play, ‘The Wrong Horse to Ride’. You see, that play was performed by inmates at what was then the Orange County Correctional Institution in Hillsborough. We did it as a graduation project.

The theme of the play was choices: do you take the ‘heroin horse’ or fuel up with the horsepower of responsible behavior. The project began not with a prepared script, but rather a roundtable discussion of the inmate/actors relating their actual life stories; and then Becky, the playwright, would incorporate that into the monologues and dialogue of the performance. As for me, I tried my hand at dialogue coach; coaxing these ‘actors’ into just being themselves on stage. We knew their audience would get it, because they were it. And, talk about way, way, off-Broadway, it was only preformed twice, both times at the prison before an audience of inmates and guards. We both received an ‘A’.

Weeks later came graduation and we went our separate ways. I went on to a career in media while Becky remained in theater.

Even though she was the daughter of Carolina ‘royalty’ – her father was Hall-of-Fame UNC track coach Dale Ranson – Becky was an adventuresome soul, but always a Tar Heel forever.

Becky would go on to write dozens of plays, spanning themes of heart and humanity, often based in her own life experiences. One of her plays was named “Warren,” after a friend who died of AIDS in 1984. Significant because it was one of the first plays dealing with AIDS to be produced and it stood apart due to its highly personalized and loving tone and because it was written not only by a woman, but a woman from the South.

Other notable plays penned include “The Incarceration of Annie,” “Desperadoes: A Trilogy,” “Elmatha’s Apology,” and “Blood on Blood.” Her collected writings are now archived at Emory University in Atlanta where for a dozen years she co-founded SAME (Southeast Arts, Media and Education), and shepherd it for a dozen years. It led to her receiving the Robert Chesley Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

I’ll also remember her as “Brownie Broadway”, which we joked about in the all too infrequent times our paths would cross later in life. It was an inside joke on ‘The Great White Way’, pinnacle of American theater, and how neither of us ever made it there.

In 2013 Becky was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and went to live on Virginia’s eastern shore. It was there she passed away on Sept. 4 at age 73.

Some years prior, when her mind was free and clear, Becky wrote: “I would like to thank all of you for being a part of my life and loving me. It’s been good, and I’ve been happy. Stay with your dreams and make the world better. I love you.”

I can’t think of a better epitaph. Good-bye my friend. I miss you, and I’ll always love you too.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.