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Spring awakening 

Burning Coal Theatre's new home in Raleigh's historic Murphey School brings the city landmark to life again

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click to enlarge Click for larger image • Members of the building and artistic teams, working overtime to be ready for the Feb. 2 grand opening: (from left) builder and actor Greg Paul, intern Kathryn Milliken, education director Ian Finley, actor Ashley Quinones, theatrical consultant Curtis Kasefang, actor Jim Sullivan and artistic director Jerome Davis. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Click for larger image • Members of the building and artistic teams, working overtime to be ready for the Feb. 2 grand opening: (from left) builder and actor Greg Paul, intern Kathryn Milliken, education director Ian Finley, actor Ashley Quinones, theatrical consultant Curtis Kasefang, actor Jim Sullivan and artistic director Jerome Davis.

The old Murphey School, on the fringe of Raleigh's historic Oakwood district, straddles the dividing line between the city's white and black communities. That's how Jerome Davis and Simmie Kastner, the founders of Burning Coal Theatre, saw the space eight years ago when they were profiled by this newspaper for an Indies Arts award.

Next month, Davis, Kastner and the vast network of private and institutional supporters they've gathered over the course of a decade will move into the beautifully renovated Murphey School auditorium. And they're still excited about being on the dividing line between white and black Raleigh.

The gala opening, slated for Saturday, Feb. 2, marks a turn of good news for the Triangle arts scene, and particularly for Raleigh, which has seen the closings of numerous performance spaces that can't seem to keep the lights on in the city's ruthless real estate culture.

Burning Coal annually stages a half-dozen shows in addition to its extensive educational mission, and in last week's Indy, the company was cited by this paper for excellence in two of its 2007 offerings. Meanwhile, Burning Coal has spent the past four years raising the $1.2 million needed to renovate the Murphey School auditorium, and its opening makes it the biggest highlight of the season for the region's arts community.

And perhaps not just for the arts community, for Davis is clearly excited about his theater assuming a place in the storied history of the building. The 48-year-old Davis, meeting me on an unseasonably cold day last week, tells me the Murphey School, located on Polk Street between Blount and Person streets, was first built in 1908. It burned down shortly thereafter, and was rebuilt in 1913. This time, it was fireproof, the first building of its kind in Raleigh.

But that wouldn't be the first time the Murphey School broke new ground. After existing as a public elementary school for a half-century, it was in the auditorium of the Murphey School that the Raleigh School Board voted to end segregation in 1961. And it was to Murphey that a 7-year-old African-American child named Bill Campbell went to integrate the city's schools. Campbell would later become the mayor of Atlanta in 1994, succeeding the tenures of Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson. (Campbell's fortunes took a nosedive in 2006, when he was sentenced to a 30-month prison term for tax evasion.)

The Murphey School was finally mothballed in 1977, but the building was salvaged thanks to a group of concerned citizens led by Ralph Campbell (brother of Bill) and future mayor Smedes York (whose father, and fellow Raleigh Hall of Fame inductee, James "Willie" York was instrumental in the 1961 desegregation vote). Saved from the wrecking ball, the school sat vacant until 1991, when the classroom portion was converted into low-income housing for senior citizens. The auditorium, however, remained empty but untouched, thanks to the protection afforded by the city's Downtown Housing Improvement Corporation and its director Gregg Warren, who wanted the space to be used by an arts nonprofit.

When Davis and Kastner moved from New York to Raleigh in the late 1990s, bringing Burning Coal with them, they inquired about locating a permanent facility and were immediately directed to the Murphey auditorium. Fundraising began in 2003, and private contributions large and small poured in, along with grant support and, crucially, a gift from the city that amounted to nearly a third of the project's budget. Under the terms of the agreement, Burning Coal will lease the space from DHIC for a mere $250 per month—the amount that Davis currently pays for his 200-square-foot office across town. Burning Coal also will be able to realize income from a daytime coffee concession—still under negotiation—and the rental of the space to outside groups.

After a decade of work, the dream is a mere 28 days from fruition on this day, but when Davis takes me inside, it's also clear that the construction crew, under Raleigh contractor Greg Paul, has many long days ahead to complete the project on schedule. I ask Davis if he's nervous. "We blew past nervous a month ago," Davis replies with a game smile. Petrified? "We're in The Petrified Forest," Davis replies, referring to the Robert Sherwood play, not the Arizona natural wonder.

Still, the emerging features of the space make it clear that when completed, Burning Coal will have the area's most attractive and versatile private arts space. The facility will seat 175 people when configured in the round and 140 when a thrust is used, giving it double or triple the capacity of the region's other permanent companies. Furthermore, despite the intimacy, the interior musters a height of two stories and includes a 270-degree balcony over the pit. The lobby includes a handsome bar constructed from reclaimed doors on site, a coat-check room that also will house a small mobile bookstore, and there will be an overhead LCD projector that will beam actors' photos, sponsors' logos and announcements onto the opposite wall.

Davis worked with architect Louis Cherry "and a whole community of artists and designers," but he gently stresses that the theater is taking shape out of his own vision and enthusiasms. He points to the exposed steel girders and distressed brick. "I don't want to hide it or paint it. I wanted the history of the building to work for us instead of against us," Davis says, citing the Donmar Warehouse in London's West End and Peter Brook's Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris as leading lights of this aesthetic—one that also can be seen in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater.

But this isn't just architectural fashion, Davis adds. "It goes back to Brecht. The space is either dramatic or not dramatic," he says. There's a political element, as well. "When you walk into a traditional proscenium theater, there's a comfort level that I'm not always in favor of," he says, citing both Brecht and Shakespeare as avatars of breaking down that coziness.

The Burning Coal thrust playing area will be quite large, covering a good portion of the ground floor. "When you break the proscenium, you bring actors toward the audience," Davis says. "I like actors in the audience—and on the audience—sweating, spitting, tickling." Indeed, there will be seven potential actors' entrances to the stage, including one from Davis' tiny office just off the balcony.

As it happens, the maiden production will be Inherit the Wind, a familiar but sturdy and relevant classic. The choice of this play came as a result of a late emergency: The long-planned opening production was to be Allan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, as adapted by Burning Coal and Theater of the American South. Although the production received rave reviews (including from the Independent), Gurganus deemed it "not ready," according to Davis, and withdrew it last fall, leaving a "$30,000 hole in the budget"—not to mention a scramble for a script. Fortuitously, Inherit the Wind will feature their longtime mainstay David Dossey, who acted in the play on Broadway with George C. Scott many years ago. (David Henderson will be Dossey's opposite number, playing the Clarence Darrow role.)

While the loss of Widow—a solo show—was a disappointment, Davis clearly relishes having the opportunity to exploit the new space with an old-fashioned, well-made play. "Inherit the Wind is such a big play [with 22 roles], and it teems with the energy of this little town. Every inch of the space is used in this production."

Davis will have no shortage of potential newcomers to theater. In addition to the surrounding Oakwood community, the theater is situated in the heart of the massive Blount Street Commons project being undertaken by developer LNR (see "Building Blount Street Commons" in the July 25, 2007, issue of the Indy). According to Davis, the redevelopment "will put 450 units within three blocks of the theater, or 1,000 people within three blocks. Urbanites—people who like living downtown—are traditionally people interested in the theater," Davis says.

In turn, LNR recognized the added value of having culture in its development and contributed $75,000 to Burning Coal. "It was a good marketing strategy for LNR," Davis says. "They can sell their units by saying, 'Don't you want to walk to the theater?'"

Indeed, Davis has long stressed the walkability and urbanity of the venture, and he likes to say that the new theater is "halfway between the governor's mansion and the Krispy Kreme," which it is. Although an influx of affluent, educated audiences will ensure Burning Coal's continuing viability, Davis is more interested in connecting with the existing African-American community. It's clear that he takes the Murphey School's legacy to heart.

Asked to summarize what the new space will mean for Burning Coal, the grizzled Davis, exhausted from the efforts of a decade and in anticipation of the 28 mad days of building and rehearsing that lie ahead, has a simple, grinning response: "We're gonna kick ass!"

Burning Coal Theatre will unveil its new space Thursday, Jan. 31, with a preview performance of Inherit the Wind. The opening gala occurs Saturday, Feb. 2. Tickets for the first weekend are available by telephone only, at 834-4001. Tickets for later performances are available online at www.burningcoal.org.

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