Orange Light

Thursday, Jan. 30–Sunday, Feb. 16 

The Fruit, Durham

On September 3, 1991, a fire swept through an Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. There were no sprinklers or alarms in the building, and the emergency exits were locked from the outside, leaving workers without a way to escape: Twenty-five people died and 56 were injured. The story received a flicker of national attention before receding into America’s long history of preventable industrial tragedies. 

But it stuck with the Durham playwright Howard L. Craft. Orange Light, his new play, which runs at The Fruit with Bulldog Ensemble Theater January 30–February 16, is based on the tragedy. Craft’s plays often experiment with surreal structures: Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green, which premiered in Chapel Hill before an off-Broadway New York run, is about an African-American man who exists in five different dimensions.

But Craft’s plays always have a sturdy foothold in real life, and in the struggles, injustices, and tragedies of our time. Previously, he’s taken on the Vietnam War, his own experience in the military, a problematic comic strip, and the life of Nina Simone. This radical-historical texturing both grounds and implicates audiences. 

Centered on the lives of five fictional women, Orange Light is directed by Joseph Megel, a frequent Craft collaborator, and features music by Rissi Palmer. Ahead of the show, the INDY sat down with Craft to talk about the Hamlet fire, working from primary texts, and how he chose to structure Orange Light

INDY: How long have you been working on the play?

HOWARD L. CRAFT: When I first got inspired about the story was actually around the time that happened, back in ‘91. I just remember it being so horrible. I couldn’t get over the idea someone would lock the exit doors to prevent people from stealing $2 chicken parts—or at least, that’s why [owner Emmett Roe] said he locked the doors. Twenty-five people died, and he only got four years.

So it’s been in your consciousness for a while. 

It’s been knocking around and around. I’m still a poet, but I primarily write plays now, and as I’ve transitioned into primarily being a playwright, I was trying to think about how I wanted to approach the story. I wanted it to be an all-women play. I wanted to emphasize that the majority of the victims were single mothers. A lot of the men that could get out of the town got out, because there’s no work—just a chicken plant for $5 an hour. But if you have kids, you’re stuck. Men also died and were injured, because fire doesn’t go by race or gender—but the impact on women just really stood out in my mind, and I wanted to shed light on the lives of the working poor, particularly women and children, who make up the largest percentage of the working poor. 

I want to ask about working with primary texts—oral histories and court documents. 

Every artist in their approach to this kind of material is different. Some writers like to tell the exact story with the exact players, and what I do is more historical fiction. One reason I don’t base it on those people is because those are people who have passed. Their own human story is so important, and I don’t want to get it wrong. Bryant Simon was an important part of this process; he’s a historian at Temple, and he wrote a book on the incident—I don’t think incident is a good word, the murder. The murders. I had several opportunities to interview him, and all of that helped to formulate what I created.

But I wanted to make it bigger than Hamlet, because I didn’t want people to leave feeling like ‘that was so sad, what a terrible one-off.’ It’s not a one-off, and we are all complicit. There is a price you pay for chicken at Walmart, but we don’t see the other side of it. Now a lot of that work is done by immigrant communities. The working conditions and exploitation, especially if those immigrants are undocumented, is even worse. You think about how these women were treated, and they were citizens. The play allows me to use this particular tragedy to look at some of the larger issues with how what we consume gets to us in sacrifices that are made so we can get, you know, the $2 chicken.

“If you don’t walk around the corner behind the railroad tracks, you won’t see the memorial. If you don’t know the story before you come to Hamlet, you won’t know the story.”

We’re coming up on the thirtieth anniversary of the fire—do you think anything has changed?

Hamlet was a unique situation because not only were there laws not in place, but the laws in place were not enforced. And they weren’t enforced because, basically, I just call it what it is: Republicans cut the budget. Yeah, there are better laws on the books, but are they being enforced? Every time we hear about something like this, the payout that the companies have to make is a drop in the bucket. Oftentimes it’s cheaper to get caught and pay the fine than it is to follow the law. That was a decision that was made on a constant basis at Imperial Foods. The reason those people died at the end of the day is because he was too cheap to fix the cooker. 

Did you go to Hamlet while you were writing this? What is it like now?

Depressing. I work with Mike Wiley, an actor and playwright, and we travel all over the state. He does one-man shows, and I do writing workshops off his shows for students. When you go down to the Eastern part of the state, or even to the Western part, into these little towns, we always say, where do people work? There are no jobs. That’s been the situation for decades.

When I went to Hamlet, it’s the same story. Most people work outside of Hamlet or in fast-food places. The thing that stood out the most to me is that they have a museum there, which has all the history of Hamlet, but there’s nothing about the fire. Not one piece. Now, if you walk around the corner, there’s a very nice memorial for the victims. It has all the names and a little park. I guess maybe they said, that’s enough. But if you don’t walk around the corner behind the railroad tracks, you won’t see the memorial. If you don’t know the story before you come to Hamlet, you won’t know the story.

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

One reply on “The High Cost of Cheap Chicken in Howard L. Craft’s “Orange Light””

  1. I highly recommend this dramatic version of the lives of Hamlet workers. In 1994 I produced a documentary about the tragedy, “Hamlet: Out of the Ashes”
    A couple of points:
    * None of the workers wanted to steal the rotten chicken. Too rotten for supermarkets. Too rotten for fast-food restaurants. Their only customer was the Federal School Lunch Program.
    * Dobbins Heights, the neighboring all-black fire department that was denied providing assistance in the tragedy, was originally formed when three children burned to death in a house fire and the fire department refused to assist unless given proof of insurance or $300 cash.
    * Some of the survivors became activists and a primary concern for them was NAFTA. When I pitched the story to investigative news organization Frontline, I was told there is nothing new here, “Just oppressed workers in the south.” When I told him their deepest concerns for the American worker was NAFTA, the executive producer for Frontline responded, “What’s NAFTA?”.

Comments are closed.