Finding an (Addams) Family through theater arts

Published 7:59 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023

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By Caroline Parker

EducationNC Writer

AHOSKIE – In a cinderblock building that was once a cabinet shop and a church in Ahoskie, Wednesday Addams tortures her little brother Pugsly in perfect musical style. She is getting “pulled in a new direction” in The Freedom Players production of “The Addams Family Young@Part.”

Sixteen young actors graced the stage during the play held in November, singing and dancing their way through the spooky comedy in Hertford County. This troupe, The Freedom Players, began in the summer of 2023 as a youth theater arts group aimed to further the literacy work of local nonprofit Cultivator, Inc.

According to the production’s playbill, which lists names and bios of all students as well as volunteers and sponsors, the program offers “no- and low-cost theater production experiences for youth ages 8 to 18 in Northeastern North Carolina. They are committed to providing a welcoming, diverse, and inclusive atmosphere for all participants and audience members.”

Upon entering the playhouse, theatergoers were greeted with a concession stand, coffin marquee, and a set designed by volunteers and students. The crowd was made of up family members and friends of the production. Rick Early and Eleanor Johnson of Raleigh, who own the building and donated it as a setting for the play, made the drive from Raleigh for opening night.

“We do a lot with a little with a little, like a lot. And we have some really great dedicated volunteers that help us pull it off,” Caroline Stephenson, director and producer of the play, said.

Parents were selling tickets, taking pictures, and manning the sound board. Meri Rowe, mom to Gomez Addams, said her family recently moved from Virginia, and this has been a wonderful experience for her son.

The Freedom Players’ first show took place that morning at Ahoskie Elementary School in front of 300 students and faculty. After that evening’s performance, the cast gathered on stage and said performing for that many people was scary — but fun.

The actors said they love the music, singing, and dancing that comes along with theater arts. Lexi Dunlow, who played Pugsly Addams, has performed on stage since she was eight years old. Now in eighth grade, she said her favorite thing about performing with this group is “the people — they’re so funny and nice and friendly.”

Inayiah “Ny” Britt played Grandma Addams. She is a senior at Elizabeth City State University, and this is her second show with The Freedom Players. She said the one thing she wants people to know about the group is that they are welcoming, exclaiming for more to “come join us!”

Marissa “Bird” Lashbrook, the actor playing Wednesday Addams, told us what she likes most about theater arts and this show specifically is how close they all became.

The story of The Freedom Players starts with Hertford County native Caroline Stephenson. Stephenson by trade is a filmmaker and director, working in the business mostly away from her hometown for over 30 years.

She grew up participating in community theater productions at Chowan University and remembers there were even larger shows at a gallery in Ahoskie.

“As a filmmaker, my roots are kind of in storytelling,” she said, and her experiences growing up around theater helped set the stage for her future career.

When she moved back to Hertford County with her family in 2010, she recognized the lack of art exposure she had as a child, along with the absence of a bookstore within one hour of her home. She and her husband wanted to fix that, so they rented a storefront in downtown Murfreesboro and opened Cultivator, Inc.

The bookstore sold books and local art, and held art classes, ESL workshops, and author talks, serving as an all-around community space. They were open from August 2016 to April of 2020. The pandemic created an unknown future for the physical store, who had a loyal customer base, Stephenson said.

Not one to give up, she pivoted from bookstore to bookmobile — and began setting up shop at the housing authority, church parking lots, and mobile home parks to give away books.

She attributes this move to reaching even more individuals in need of books. Adding onto the mission of promoting literacy, Cultivator, Inc. began participating in food access. They now set up shop the first Thursday of every month, in partnership with the Food Bank of the Albemarle, and distribute to those in need.

Stephenson credits many partners in the continued work of increasing literacy and food access in her rural region. Cultivator, Inc. has a great relationship with the Albemarle Regional Library System and Book Harvest in Durham; both donate books to give away.

The bookmobile is an idea — it can be Stephenson’s minivan, the back of someone’s truck, or the trunk of someone’s car. The illustration that represents this bookmobile is of local hero and literacy advocate Katie Hart’s vehicle. Hart was an African American educator, determined to get books in the hands of those who weren’t allowed in the local library. Stephenson wrote a play about Hart called “Books Are My Children,” and it was performed at the C. S. Brown Cultural Arts Center in 2017.

In addition to the work of Cultivator, Inc. and The Freedom Players in Hertford County, Stephenson continues to work in filmmaking around the country. She and The Freedom Players have already planned their next productions: “The Outsiders” and “Mathilda the Musical.” The rights to these plays cost money, along with the cost of costumes, equipping the performance space for the audience, and more to get the productions up and running. Stephenson says it takes “a lot of hustling to pull this off.”

It is easy to see how Stephenson’s experience in film informs her work for The Freedom Players. Her tireless efforts and attention to detail make the atmosphere for these local students incredibly special. The playbill, the popcorn machine, the microphones, and sound board — it all comes together, as the spotlight shines on her young actors.

To independently produce these shows, Stephenson said “its like a miracle.” The Freedom Players are excited about both future productions, and Stephenson has plans to open the bookstore once again as a brick-and-mortar in Ahoskie.

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition. This story and photo are published with her permission.