PARRISH -- It was a funny story that he kept locked in his memory for decades because no one asked to hear it.
But then, about three years ago, a group of people from a nonprofit called the Parrish Playworks invited him to a story circle.
His story was about growing up in Parrish in a family with a car without a radio. But to convince people they did have a radio, his little sisters would crawl down on the car floorboards and sing at the top of their lungs as they drove through town.
The storyteller, who wants to remain anonymous, was one of many who shared their tales of long ago Parrish for Friday's debut of Parrish Playworks' 90-minute play, "Red Rooster Tales: The
Train to Yesterday," at the St. Frances X Cabrini Center in Parrish.
During the play, Ximena Chafloque, 12, who attends Center Montessori School, plays one of the "radio girls" and the other is played by Kaelianna McMillan, 12.
The production is not community theater or "Little" theater but something entirely different called "community performance," said the play's writer and director, Parrish resident Karen Romant.
"Our production is modeled after 'Swamp Gravy,' which is a folk-life play that came from Colquitt, a small town in Georgia, where stories were recorded and turned into a play," Romant said. "That is what we have done here in Parrish. We went into the community and gathered stories in story circles, like the one we held in L.V. Moran's barn and Norma Kennedy's living room and at the firefighter's circle and the cattleman's circle. Our play is not the 956th performance of 'Les Miserables.' It's something that relates to the people around here."
Most of the cast of 25 have no prior theater experience but Romant does, from years working in Los Angeles and studying theater at Florida State University. So does Ellen VanDolah, a New York trained actor and singer, who wrote about a half dozen snappy original songs for the production.
The idea for all of it began at the Parrish YMCA, when theater-fan and long-time Parrish resident Claudia Hartung saw Romant working out in a Shakespeare shirt at the Y and shared her dream of a play about Parrish.
"The idea with community production is that you bring in people trained in theater, who know set design and lighting and costumes and that puts a bit of gloss on it, and you mount it as professional theater," Romant said, referring to her crew, including pianist Karen Euga, costumer designer Caroline Jamison, lighting expert Richard Montgomery and stage manager Victoria Bolduc.
Those who go to the production at the Cabrini Center, which can seat 200, will hear many stories.
Some of them are tiny gems, such as that Parrish people love "C" foods: catfish, collards and cornbread.
Some are longer, like the one narrated by Manatee County resident Matt O'Brien Diaz, who plays the Rev. William "Brother Bud" Gillett, the beloved pastor of First Baptist Church of Palmetto, who was born in Parrish, died Nov. 2, and whose memorial service is Sunday, the exact time of the matinee of this play.
Diaz tells the audience how Gillett was breech-born at home and that the doctor told Gillett's father, "I can save your wife or baby but not both."
Before he died, Gillett actually told the story of his birth in a story-gathering circle, which Romant attended.
"Brother Bud told us his father shouted to the doctor, 'Save my wife,' " Romant continued. "So, the doctor left Brother Bud and went to the wife. But a nurse and a neighbor named Miss Pearl repeatedly dipped the infant Brother Bud in a tub of cool water, then another tub of hot water and dunked him up and down, rubbing him briskly all over. They wouldn't quit on him. All of the sudden, he began to breathe and started to cry."
The doctor told Gillett's dad, "It took so long to save him, don't expect anything from this boy." Romant said.
Gillett went on to become one of the most admired men of his generation in Manatee County.
"God breathed his first breath into him and that was Brother Bud's story,'" Romant said.
With every production there seems to be one person who may steal the show and this one is no exception.
Everyone who sees rehearsals raves about Stanley Kotas, the conductor of the train back to yesterday.
Kotas has never before been in a play. He is a real life train conductor at the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish. But he plays the conductor role as if he has been on stage all his life.
"I am having more fun than I ever thought a person could have," Kotas said Thursday at dress rehearsal.
Perhaps it's worth the price of admission to hear Kotas sing out the exact phrase that conductors used to bellow out in the old days when passengers approached Parrish on the train. The train route was Wimauma, Willow, Parrish, Erie and Palmetto.
Sings Kotas: "Why mama will I perish 'ere I get to Palmetto?"
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him at @RichardDymond.