Showtime in Edgefield
Photo by John Harpring
Over the river and through the peach orchards lies Edgefield, S.C. Aside from the juiciest, sweetest peaches in the world, Edgefield is famous for its pottery, its bloody history and its 10 governors (the most recent, Strom Thurmond, stands immortalized in bronze in the historic town square). A county seat since 1785, Edgefield remains an unpretentious country town, its courthouse and a few shops and restaurants clustered around the square, and beyond it the shaded yards of elegant antebellum homes giving way to country roads and rolling farms.
But like so many small towns, Edgefield has found some of its cultural vitality drained by its proximity to bigger neighbors. Aiken and Augusta, with their theaters and music and shopping, are an easy drive away, so that’s where Edgefielders go to get their cultural needs met.
They don’t have to travel for theater any more, though. In fact, people from Augusta and Aiken are beginning to discover that theater in little Edgefield is worth the drive. That’s because last summer, when the folks in Edgefield created a theater company, they didn’t play it safe. They wanted to make their company distinct from community theaters everywhere else. So they made an interesting decision. “We will do a new production, a world premiere, as first production every year,” says Tony Baughman, the group’s artistic director.
Baughman provided that world premiere this past October by writing it himself. It wasn’t easy. First he wrote a provocative full-length play called The Eleventh. The premise is that Edgefield produces an 11th South Carolina governor, this one a woman. She is visited by the ghosts of the 10 former Edgefield-born governors—warts and all. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman and two other racist governors, in white robes, formed a kind of Greek chorus, quoting from some of their infamous speeches. The play was deliberately provocative, challenging and disturbing.
And the board rejected it. They were open to edgy theater, they said, but this was way too warty for the company’s premiere. “Can you write something else?” they asked.
In a flurry of disappointment and anger, Baughman spent a long weekend hunched over his computer and started over. By Monday he had turned out two one-acts, Cornbread and Clay and The Buttermilk Guild. With these original plays, the Edgefield County Theatre Company opened its first season last October.
Cornbread and Clay centers on Cornbread Simpkins, a fictional Edgefield potter whose grandfather had been taught to make pottery by the famous Edgefield slave, Dave. A New York Times sports writer is sent to interview Cornbread without being told why. Only after Cornbread dies does the writer learn that Cornbread had been a baseball player in the Negro League who was almost selected to break the color barrier in the majors, the role that fell to Jackie Robinson. After having been passed over, Cornbread returned to Edgefield and dedicated the rest of his life to pottery.
The Buttermilk Guild is Baughman’s comic take on the board’s rejection of The Eleventh. A guild of amateur visual artists specializing in pretty flowers, palm trees and still lifes is stunned when one of their own paints a picture so politically revolutionary that the members try to keep it out of the Buttermilk Art Show.
Of course, everyone on the board knew that The Buttermilk Guild was a satirical commentary about their own actions, but they gave it the green light anyway. They had no trouble laughing at themselves or trusting Baughman’s vision.
Once the inaugural weekend was done, the company turned to more traditional fare, though it favors fare with a bit of attitude. “We want to do daring, provocative theater that makes people think, that makes them look at themselves and maybe even makes them uncomfortable sometimes,” Baughman says. “But at the same time we have to be commercially successful.” The company seems to have gotten the balance about right in its ambitious first season. For Christmas they did Kringle’s Window, then in the spring the always popular Steel Magnolias. They got a good deal edgier in March with Lee Blessing’s Cobb, an unvarnished, in-your-face look at Ty Cobb’s career. In the company’s intimate 65-seat theater, “in-your-face” is not a figure of speech. Still to come this season are two comedies: Dixie Swim Club in June and Moonlight and Magnolias in August.
Generous patrons and good audiences have made this first season a financial success. But as director, Baughman has had to struggle getting people to audition. “It’s been a challenge getting Edgefield not to be afraid to come out and act. We have an excellent theater program at Strom Thurmond High School, but adults, especially men, are very tough to get. The biggest challenge is breaking down those walls. It doesn’t have to be scary. Acting is really just organized play. I’m trying to get them to see it that way.”
All the productions are held in Edgefield’s Discovery Center, a short walk from the town square. That wasn’t the original plan. For years the local arts community, led by Beth Worth and Pamela Moore, had hoped to acquire the Edgefield Advertiser building, but with renovations that would cost over $3 million. That was more than anyone could raise. So nothing happened.
Rather than wait for a theater space, in 2010 Baughman came up with a concept he called “front porch theater.” Edgefield was a town of beautiful antebellum and Victorian homes. Why not take theater to its very basics and just use what’s already there? All you needed to put on plays were front porches and lawn chairs.
And so it would have been but for a deus ex machina solution worthy of Euripides, dropping from the sky. The federal government suddenly found itself pinched for cash. The feds yanked funding out of National Heritage Corridors and closed its heritage centers, including Edgefield’s Discovery Center. Bad news, right? Yes, but the Edgefield County Historical Society owned the historic home which housed the Discovery Center. They donated the house’s now-empty east gallery to the fledgling theater company for a theater space.
Donors jumped in. The William Miller Bouknight family gave the sound system, donors provided comfortable armchairs and cocktail tables and between June and the October premiere, the space was reconfigured, painted, hung with lights, furnished, carpeted and transformed into a black box theater.
“We exist because an amazing group of people who love theater came together with the goal of creating something special for our community,” says Baughman. “Pamela Moore and Beth Worth, the president and vice president of our board, work tirelessly to manage the business side of the theater so I can concentrate on the creative. Volunteers such as graphic artist Linda Ely and John Gerrard have invested countless hours so that we can have professional-quality programs and a beautiful facility. We have created a wonderful family.”
Next season will open with an original play based on the trial of Edgefield’s legendary Becky Cotton, who murdered three husbands in the 1700s but was so beautiful no jury would convict her. Then the company will turn to more standard fare: Miracle on 34th Street, The Hallelujah Girls, On Golden Pond, Crimes of the Heart and a musical to close the season. But Baughman is also creating “Twilight Theatre,” a series of minimalist productions. Baughman hopes to present Doubt and God of Carnage or Art. “Twilight Theatre will be a little more edgy, less commercial, a showcase for the actors.”
Baughman tries to get to New York to see plays every year. He’s always reading theater news and scripts of new plays. He has done lots of acting, directing and stage managing in Aiken, where he lives. By day he is program director and afternoon host at WKSX-FM in Johnston. Before that he was managing editor and publisher of the Edgefield Citizen News. Journalism and broadcasting are how he makes his living, but theater is his life.
His years reporting and broadcasting in the area have given Baughman a good understanding of the people who live in Edgefield County. “This is a sophisticated region. There’s real cultural pride here. And we have lots of transplants, folks who have been to Broadway and Greenwich Village—they know good theater.”
One of those transplants is author Leonard Todd, who with his wife, poet Laurel Blossom, moved to Edgefield from Manhattan about five years ago. They love Edgefield’s beauty and culture, and they are eager to share it. Less than an hour from Augusta, Edgefield makes for a perfect getaway for a day. Todd suggests this itinerary:
Spend an afternoon shopping for pottery, the thing Edgefield is most famous for. Stephen Ferrell at Old Edgefield Pottery, just off the square, makes traditional Edgefield District pottery the same way the famous Dave did in the 19th century. If contemporary styles are more to your taste, Jane Bess makes colorful modern pieces at Jane Bess Pottery nearby.
When you’re hungry, there’s fine dining at both the Old Edgefield Grill and Chef Bob’s Café at Barristers. Both are just a few steps from the square and both of them are housed in handsome historic structures.
And after dinner, a short walk away, ease back into a comfortable armchair at the William Miller Bouknight Theatre. It’s showtime.