Panhandle Players’ ‘Sweet Tea’ this weekend
New Year’s Day in 1923 promised to begin a fresh year of prosperity and progress for the state of Florida. For the African-American citizens of Rosewood in Levy County it saw the beginning of the end for their small community.
Over the next few days, Rosewood was destroyed by a racially motivated massacre. While there was never an official investigation by the white authorities, estimates of up to 150 black people were beaten, hanged and murdered by white men from neighboring towns.
Before the massacre, the town of Rosewood had been a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle-stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway.
Trouble began when white men from several nearby towns lynched a black Rosewood resident because of unsupported accusations a white woman in nearby Sumner had been beaten and possibly raped by a black drifter. It was later discovered her attacker was, in fact, white.
When the town's black citizens rallied together to defend themselves against further attacks, a mob of several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people, and burned almost every structure in Rosewood. Survivors from the town hid for several days in nearby swamps until they were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. No arrests were made for what happened. The town was abandoned by its former black and white residents; none ever moved back, and the town ceased to exist.
And so begins the story that leads to “Sweet Tea on the Front Porch,” Jerry Hurley’s latest offering to be performed by the Panhandle Players, the Forgotten Coast’s premier community theatre troupe.
“Since the success of my first play, ‘Secrets & Sweet Tea,’ performed last season, I wrestled with what sort of play to write for the current season,” he said. “’Sweet Tea on the Front Porch’ grew from those thoughts.”
The first act, a drama, “The Escape,” takes the audience back to a front porch in Apalachicola immediately after the Rosewood Massacre in January 1923. There the audience meets two memorable ladies, Minnie Clementine (Mishelle McPherson) and Alice Clark (Renee Valentine), and the local postman Gus Magee (David Stedman).
In addition, the show’s lead actor William Hughes (Eric Olson), and vigilante Col. Cornelius Cropwell (David Adlerstein) present a scene of racial violence the likes of which have not played out before on the Panhandle Players stage. “You will realize that sometimes the law and justice are two different things,” said Hurley. “You might wonder which will prevail.”
Act 2, a comedy, “Pushing Up Daisies,” takes place on the same front porch in 1934. Here we are introduced to Versey Clark (Hank Kozlowsky), Alice Clark’s vindictive ex-husband; and Buttercup Brown (Elaine Kozlowsky), a gossipy neighbor. Plus there’s an appearance by the infamous Bonnie Parker (Alexis Schefka) and Clyde Barrow (Royce Rolstad III).
Finally, Act 3 is a mystery, “A Treasure Found.” The year is 1946 and World War II has ended. A son of the South returns with daughter J.T. Hughes (Camille Williams) to the front porch in Apalachicola to claim an inheritance, and perhaps lose it to J.J. Rayburn (Bob Inguagiato).
“Sweet Tea on the Front Porch” will be performed Friday, Feb. 7 and Saturday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Chapman Auditorium. A 3 p.m. matinee will be performed on Sunday, Feb. 9. Tickets will be available at the door for $20, and can be found online at PanhandlePlayers.com for $18 each.