Some call it “the bottom,” others call it the “Black Settlement.” Its inhabitants call it the “West End,” a historically black neighborhood bordering the Mebane city limits. Its two-room houses were built by factory owners before the dawn of the last century to house the laborers of White’s Furniture Company and other regional concerns.
Of course, two rooms meant one apiece for the two families who lived in each building in those days. And economic corners were just as strategically cut in other facets of the original community’s development. Standing just outside city limits, a host of city building ordinances could be ignored. Developers weren’t obliged to put in paved streets, sidewalks, or water and sewer lines, for that matter.
One century later, those amenities have still not reached the majority of the West End. Though Mebane has hopscotched directly over it to annex more well-to-do (and racially homogenous) areas farther away, the West End still mysteriously lies, as ever, just outside the city limits.
“Crossing that invisible line from white to black communities felt like going from one country to another,” said actor Sara Kocz, who has spent over two years working in the neighborhood, learning for the first time about environmental racism and justice up close.
The result of her work, documenting the stories she found and finds, will be performed this weekend when she presents a one-woman show, Finding Beulah Mae, at UNC’s Bingham Hall.
In Kocz’s first semester, UNC’s Assisting People in Planned Learning Experiences through Service program placed her with the West End Revitalization Association, a nonprofit community organization devoted to saving the area.
But something in the story she saw unfolding before her drew her back.
A planned bypass threatened to demolish the neighborhood, cutting through 20 homes and destroying a 107-year-old church, while a nearby white-owned farm had been able to establish historical significance and get the road rerouted.
“The Environmental Justice Act says that certain factors are supposed to be studied when highway projects displace people,” Kocz notes. “The number of minority, low income, elderly and disabled people in an area are supposed to be taken into account.”
Local officials also seemed to be ignoring other required procedures mandated in the use of federal highway funds. Mandatory public meetings to inform the community and seek their input were never held. Environmental impact studies were not being done.
WERA filed a civil rights complaint against the city of Mebane in response. One early result of their agitation was an EPA study last month that found the water in the region’s streams and lakes to be unsafe owing to leaking sewage and a petroleum spill from years earlier.
After her academic residency ended, Kocz stayed on for two additional years, without pay or academic credit. “It turned out to be the essence of experiential learning,” she now notes ruefully, “but the notion that my work could be mediated somehow by a grade or by an institutional purpose is something I had trouble with.”
“It is still too much alive, and the things being discussed in my interviews are still going on,” Kocz continued. “So to package them up as history is a misnomer in a sense. At first it felt I was being asked to write a book report for something that’s an ongoing journey.”
Not that that made Kocz’s odyssey any easier. “I sometimes longed just to write a paper and be done with it. But I had a responsibility, knowing what I knew about what was going on there. I couldn’t turn it into something I could get a grade on.”
Kocz conducted a number of oral interviews with West End inhabitants–many older individuals in their 70s, 80s and beyond. “It was a privilege to be in that position, to be allowed to share what it was like to be a child in the 1930s, or the 1910s.”
“But in all this there was this sense that I was missing the point here,” she continues. “My mission wasn’t to show this community back to itself. They don’t need to hear these stories–they already know them. Other people need to hear them, to have the experience I was having.”
No Experience Necessary? It was a hook straight from marketing heaven–the perfect pitch to rev up ticket sales for North Carolina Theatre’s upcoming production of The Sound of Music. Who could possibly be better to play the von Trapp children, the famous Austrian singing family immortalized in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, than “The von Trapp Children,” a modern-day, four-sibling singing group whose members just happen to be the direct descendents of the original cast?
The regional media got its first glimpse of the quartet last week at a morning press conference at the BTI Center. From the early analysis, this crew could still use a few more singing-nun lessons before they open in Raleigh Memorial Hall on July 11.
No less a dignitary than Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker was on hand last Wednesday morning to introduce the fresh-faced Sofia (the elder of the group, at 14), Melanie (12), Amanda (11) and Justin (8), all convincingly costumed for the occasion in colorful Alpine children’s wear.
After Meeker dedicated a sunset maple tree to be planted in their honor in Oakland Park, local actor Ira David Wood III, who plays Captain von Trapp in the show, said he looked forward “to learning a lot from them.”
Presumably that doesn’t include much in the way of acting. Not since the four quite cheerfully proceeded to admit, during the ensuing question and answer session, that none of them has had any serious theatrical experience up to now.
Ah, the disarming candor of the very young.
True, Sofia had once played a sheep in a showcase called “Faces of ’97” at a playhouse in Big Fork, Mont., their hometown at the time. And Justin had one line–“Arrrr!”–as a pirate in some show now lost to the mists of childhood.
Still, those now poised to write the whole thing off should bear in mind that the quartet has sung on Good Morning America; opened at least once for both George Winston and Peter, Paul and Mary; and performed at Ground Zero to an audience of rescuers within the last year.
It might also bear noting that precious few lines are actually allocated Louisa, Brigitta, Marta and Kurt von Trapp–the selected ancestors they’ll be enacting. Meanwhile, Liesl, that featured ingenue who’s been “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” now for the last 40 years, will be professionally cast.
In all, the von Trapps’ situation seems similar to those of the Osmonds Second Generation, a similar “name” (or name-once-removed) singing group, which was given top billing–and strictly chorus duties, with no solos–in a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which played Raleigh in 1998.
But even if the von Trapps only have to sing, there might still be snags.
Their debut CD, simply titled Vol. 1, was made available to the press last week. In the higher registers, some of the voices are noticeably thin. And even odder for a quartet’s first album, all four children sing on only three out of 17 tracks: Amanda sits out six songs, while young Justin goes missing on 14.
Somewhat more disturbing, at least from a musical casting director’s point of view, are the two-part harmonies the quartet rarely strays from–except, that is, to sing in unison. At no point in “Vol. 1” do the four actually sing in four-part harmony.
Well, they’re young. And even with these provisos, Vol. 1 remains a sentimental and admittedly affecting collection of religious, children’s and European songs.
Whether or not it also spells a career on stage remains to be seen. Interestingly enough, Las Vegas has already placed its bets on the matter: The von Trapps open The Sound of Music there at the Aladdin Hotel three short days after closing here on July 20.
Local gamblers can place their wagers at this point: Tickets for the Raleigh show are on sale right now.