Although Daum Professor Linda Bannister’s formal training is in rhetoric and composition, she has recently focused her attention on playwriting. In fact, she and her writing partner, James E. Hurd, Jr., wrote and produced a full-length drama, “Turpentine Jake,” which premiered at Loyola Marymount University’s Del Rey Theatre in August 2008.
“Turpentine Jake” is a two-act drama based on the true story of Hurd’s grandfather and oral histories from surviving turpentine workers of the Florida pine forests from 1900 – 1960. Turpentine workers, mostly blacks, were caught in debt peonage to the camp owners and the company store. Beatings, manhunts and lynching were common to deter anyone from fleeing the camps. The play follows the title character Jake as he helps his fellow workers assert some control over their oppressive environment by spinning tales and songs that celebrate life in all of its forms, and who eventually manages to escape the camp.
“The play exposes a history lesson that has been kept quiet. The turpentine industry continued well into the 1960s,” Bannister said. “It’s remarkable how the turpentiners endured such harsh living conditions, usually against their will. However, it never broke their spirit.”
Bannister and Hurd also co-authored a short film based on the play “Poet of the Swingin’ Blade” in attempts to gain more attention for their stage project. The film won Best Message Film at the San Diego Festival and was selected as a finalist at film festivals including the 2007 Hollywood Black Film Festival, The Arizona Black Film Festival 2007, The Big Island Film Festival 2007, and the 14th Annual African American Film Marketplace/Reel Black Men 2007.
“Our goal was to tell James’ grandfather’s story, and to bring the truth,” Bannister said. “I am very pleased with the success of both the play and the short film.”
In addition, Bannister and Hurd co-wrote a chapter in the forthcoming book, “Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric” (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2008). The chapter, “Recovering the Voices of the Florida Turpentine Slaves: A Lost Rhetoric of Resistance,” is based on their interviews of surviving turpentine workers that were conducted in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The play was co-directed by Hurd and Jim Holmes, professor of theatre, and included several LMU students as actors and in various behind-the scene capacities. Future plans for “Turpentine Jake” include hopes of producing it at a larger theatre such as the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City or the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. Turpentine Jake is currently a finalist being considered for the National Black Theater Festival 2009 and the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Playfest 2009.
Photos: Top Right: Playwrights Linda Bannister and James E. Hurd, Jr. (who also played the title role of Jake) on set at the Del Rey Theatre.
Bottom left: A still shot from the short film, "Poet of the Swingin' Blade."