Original play shines light on Five Row community
(pictured above: Harvey Miller (standing on ground second from left) poses with other students at Five Row School in this vintage photo.)
Residents in the community have a chance to step back in time to share in the lives of two children from different backgrounds who are intertwined by a palatial estate.
The Reynolda House Museum of American Art and the Peppercorn Theatre are staging the original play “Five Row: Growing up with Reynolda” later this month.
Five Row was an African American farming village that was on the sprawling estate of the Reynolds family, whose R.J. Reynolds tobacco empire helped to put Winston-Salem on the map. In the early 1900s, more than 30 African American employees and their families lived on the estate, according to Paul Archer, director of Public Programs at Reynolda House, which operates out of the main house on the former Reynolds estate.
“They lived in this tight-knit community with their own school and church right along Silas Creek Parkway,” Archer said. “The idea for the play came when the theatre and I began talking about the tons of oral stories we had from people who lived in Five Row.”
Miller grew up in Five Row as his father and uncle worked on the Reynolds farm. He began doing odd jobs as a teenager before working in the bungalow on the estate as an assistant to John Carter, the head butler. When Carter died, Miller became the head butler.
Mary Reynolds was the eldest daughter of R.J. Reynolds and spent most of her childhood on the estate. She eventually owned the estate, buying out her siblings. Miller became her main employee.
“They ended up having this four or five-decade relationship, first by growing up together and then as employer and employee,” Archer said. “The play shows how their lives intertwined as kids and adults. As children, they get a sense that they are different, but their destinies have something to do with this place. It puts you in that place and time, in terms of racial relations, country living and aviation.”
Harry Poster described the process of writing and directing the play as “incredible.”
“I realized that I wanted to write about characters who grew up on the estate, specifically a character who grew up in Five Row and began working at the house. That character was Harvey Miller,” Poster said. “I wanted to see what happened with (Reynolds and Miller) as kids before they took on their respective roles as lady of the house and butler.”
The play will debut on Friday, June 13 at 11 a.m. at Reynolda House’s Babcock Auditorium. There will also be a 11 a.m. staging on Friday, June 20 and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. shows on June 14 and June 21. Shows will be held at 2 p.m. only on June 15 and June 22.
Q&As featuring Poster, museum staff and community advisors will be held after each staging. The cast of the play will interact with young people in a special children’s art area that is being co-sponored by the Delta Arts Center after every performance.
Archer believes the play will be much more relatable than reading a history book. He praised Peppercorn, which was founded in 2010 by students and alumni of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, for its effort.
“This company is actually writing original work that relates to local history,” he said.
Reynolda House is touting the play as “appropriate for audiences ages 4 to 104.” Poster agrees that the story will grab everyone’s interest.
“This is a story that we all have experienced in life,” he said. “For children, the playfulness and the imagination part is important. As adults, it is all about the process of change. We are incredibly excited.”
Admission to the play is $5 at the door. Tickets are also available in advance at http://www.reynoldahouse.org/calendar.