Orange Light


Through Sunday, Feb. 16

The Fruit, Durham

Though the Imperial Foods fire in Hamlet was one of the worst industrial disasters in North Carolina history, the catastrophe quickly receded into the past, a casualty of our culture’s unwillingness to count the human costs of an economy where cheapness supersedes most other values.

That makes local playwright Howard L. Craft’s latest drama, Orange Light, an act of both remembrance and defiance. Its credo comes in an early interview sequence for a supposed documentary, when orphaned character John Crutchfield (Carly P. Jones) says, “We do a lot of forgetting in this country. I tell my story for the memory.”

Those memories are somewhat scrambled, though, by Craft’s choice to make Orange Light a theatrical roman à clef. Some characters are easily paired with real-world counterparts: Venomous plant manager Bob Buchanan (a vivid Abbey Toot) is a clear stand-in for Brad Roe, son of plant owner Emmett Roe, who opened his chicken-processing plant in a small, economically depressed Southern town after difficulties in states with stronger unions and safety regulations. 

Racist former fire chief J.P. Calhoun (Elisabeth Lewis Corley) is presumably David Fuller, who repeatedly refused help during the disaster from an African-American volunteer fire department only five minutes away. Only Jesse Jackson retains his name in video footage and an on-stage impersonation by Lakeisha Coffey.

But the five women at the heart of this drama remain more obscure. Coffey lends her trademark authenticity to Wilma Everette, a no-nonsense woman whose carpal tunnel syndrome jeopardizes her job. Under Joseph Megel’s direction, Jones plays Everette’s friend, Laverne, a single mother struggling to raise two contrary boys. Actor Aurelia Belford ably brings to life the bright Quisha King, who tries to convince coworker and songwriter Jenny Buckley (Kri Schafer) to agitate for safer working conditions. Corley also depicts the plight of Mary Ford, an aging worker who falls prey to Buchanan’s machinations to keep his workers under his thumb.  

There’s song and dance: In the country anthem “Woman Through It All,” versatile songwriter Rissi Palmer conjures a dead-end small town where “ain’t no point to prove / ain’t nowhere to move.” (A later love-beyond-death song, “Mama Made It Happen,” is more mawkish.) In “Sixty Thousand Pounds,” Aya Shabu’s choreography mechanizes the rhythmic lockstep of factory labor.

The frame of Alex Maness’s videos evokes Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary theater works. But the fictional composite characters suggest that the experiences of the living and the dead are more important collectively than individually. When a character speculates on a motive other than theft-control for the padlocked fire exits, are we in the realm of lightly fictionalized fact or the playwright’s imagination? 

The unlikely admissions of a defense attorney further stretch the limits of believability. The strife and strivings of workers “trapped,” in Jackson’s words, “by economic desperation and oppressive work laws” ring the truest in Craft’s play, which Bulldog Ensemble Theater is currently producing at The Fruit. 

But its less-clear fictive trappings call into question the act of memory that Orange Light seeks to be.  

Comment on this story 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.