Parrish residents hope new folk life play about town's history sparks community, economy

Residents hope play about town's history sparks economy, sense of community

jbartolone@bradenton.comOctober 6, 2013 

PARRISH -- Ben Jordan can just envision it: tourists coming from all over to see the new folk life play about the history of Parrish.

Maybe they'll check out the Florida Railroad Museum or a gift shop/visitors' center Jordan would love to see built. Surely they'll want to stop in for a bite to eat at one of the town's restaurants. And Parrish residents new and old will have a newfound sense of pride in their hometown and a better understanding of their shared history through the play.

"You've got to get that snowball rolling," said Jordan, president of the Parrish Civic Association,

The snowball started with the creation of the Parrish Arts Council a few years ago by a handful of residents interested in using the arts to reestablish the community's identity and jump-start its economy. They wanted to follow the model of the little

town of Colquitt, Ga., with a population of about 2,000.

Colquitt's own folk life play, created 20 years ago, grew into a nationally acclaimed tourism draw and an economic engine that led to the revitalization of what had been a dying rural community.

A similar arts project in Parrish was seen by the council as a way to finally link the town's residents, who often come in two types: those who trace their roots back to its beginnings as an agricultural town at the turn of the 20th century, and those drawn to Parrish's abundant farmland during the housing boom of recent years.

"Just like Colquitt, you've got to start somewhere," Jordan said.

Their idea: a Parrish-themed production called "Red Rooster Tales," a blend of comedy, drama and music set to debut sometime in spring 2014. There are already 24 locals in the cast, which is expected to grow to about 30.

The group is hosting a preview of its folk life play, along with a catered fundraiser Friday at the Parrish Branch Y and community center. It will be followed the next day by a preview there for community members. That show sold out its 150 tickets in a day.

Organizers hope to raise enough money through donors and grants to eventually build a new performance facility, maybe even with an adjoining historical museum or visitors' center, that can house "Red Rooster Tales" permanently. And they have dreams of establishing their own arts community, with a children's theater program and other yearly productions.

Ellen VanDohlan, the production's musical director, has been involved in community theater in her home state of Massachusetts. She hopes "Red Rooster Tales" unites people here.

"I can already see it happening in rehearsals: People are getting excited about having the arts in Parrish, and it's something they are excited to get involved in," VanDohlan said. "It was like pulling teeth to get people to come to auditions, but once they did, they loved it. Even people who haven't done anything in theater before are finding they like it."

For "Red Rooster Tales," arts council volunteers spent the past two years collecting more than 500 oral histories from Parrish residents, filling up four big notebooks with their stories.

Writer/director Karen Romant especially enjoys the charming little stories about what life used to be like in rural Parrish.

Like the time "Vivian's grandmother got rescued by a cowboy while being chased by a bull down (U.S.) 301," she recalled, or the little boy who couldn't handle chewing tobacco but stuck a Tootsie Roll up under his lip so he could fit in with his daddy and the other cow hunters. Tales similar to these will be spliced into the narrative of "Red Rooster Tales."

Romant studied theater in graduate school at Florida State and created a play using oral histories of Tallahassee residents as part of her thesis. She also studied the folk life play in Colquitt, called "Swamp Gravy," which was such a success it was invited to perform during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; for President Jimmy Carter, and taken on the road to towns all across the country.

Romant hopes "Red Rooster Tales" can make the same kind of impact in Parrish.

"It's meant to bring a cultural bond," Romant said. "But if it brings people together, it can bring a revitalization to the economy. It's meant to be a double blessing."

In short, "Swamp Gravy" helped put tiny Colquitt on the map.

"Our square went from having maybe a restaurant on it to being full of restaurants, a book shop, a gift shop," said Kate Willis, artistic director for "Swamp Gravy." "We've gone from a dying town to a town that actually supports tourism."

Supporters hope the same for Parrish. But even without the economic impact, their wish is for "Red Rooster Tales" to create a shared sense of community.

"Seeing the growth out here, the newcomers have no clue about the history of Parrish and that it was the beginning of Manatee County, so to speak," said Norma Kennedy, president of the Parrish Arts Council and a Manatee native.

As Romant puts it: "When we tell each other our stories, we honor each other."

Jason Bartolone, East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.

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