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'ORCHARD' BLOOMS AS NOT SO GRAVE A PLAY

There are new characters and a new cast, but the latest edition of "The Marble Orchard" by Timothy P. Henderson opened in the village cemetery on Friday and continues at 2 p.m. today and at 2 and 7 p.m. next Sunday.

Now in its fourth season, the play has new characters each year, with no shortage of interesting people buried in the cemetery. Act I takes place in First Presbyterian Church at 505 Cayuga St. and South Fifth Street. For Act II, the audience steps outside to the cemetery and follows actors on a tour of the Marble Orchard.

This is a feminist play with its roots in the Abolitionist movement, set in this once-sleepy village when it was the northernmost stop in the Underground Railroad, or Freedom Trail, from the American South to Canada.

"This play is not so much about the Freedom Trail as it is about what happened to the blacks, once they were free," says director Eva B. Nicklas, executive director of the Lewiston Council on the Arts, which produces the play.

Linda Rogers plays Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), an emancipated slave who traveled throughout the North preaching not only abolition but women's rights. Her daughter, Kiera, 10, plays Sojourner's daughter. Both were in the recent Artpark production of "Show Boat."

Baritone Richard Smith plays Robert Nathaniel Dett, a black man born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Ont. The son of runaway slaves was transplanted at age 11 to Niagara Falls, N.Y. He became a musician and toured the world as director of the all-black Hampton Institute choir in Virginia.

To assure historical authenticity, the Arts Council enlisted Wilma Morrison of Nathaniel Dett Church, a British Methodist Episcopal church in Niagara Falls, Ont., which was recently renamed in Dett's memory.

"The Dett family moved from Ontario to New York after a Halloween prank in which his brother was shot," Morrison says. "The church was renamed for him because of an alert librarian in Niagara Falls, N.Y."

Active with the music ministry of St. John's AME Church in the Falls, Smith is a flamboyant performer and is the backbone of the show. Sporting mutton chops, tux and tails, with spats and white scarf, he sings and plays the piano in the church scenes.

"I played for President Coolidge," Dett brags as he launches into "How Great Thou Art," his signature piece. One wonders how Silent Cal would have reacted to Smith's version, as he jazzes up the hymn, rolling his R's and his tongue. When he reaches the part about the "rolling thunder," he slams the bass keys to recreate the storm.

Paired with Smith is Linda Rogers in her other role as Lucy Mae Leary, who traveled with Dett to Lewiston as the Hampton choir's lead singer. She starts low, at the bottom of the register, and slowly rises to a crescendo, astonishing listeners with the range of her voice.

In their duet, "Wading in the Water," Smith starts foot stomping, and Rogers joins in. Smith stands for his high notes, still plunking the piano keys as his voice rises. Clapping fills the church as everybody grooves on "drowning your troubles in the water."

Nicklas is especially proud of the "pillars of society" she has cast for this year's production.

In the cemetery, Jack Morgan, former president of the Lewiston Historical Society, plays Niels Nielson, a Danish immigrant who brought his bride to Niagara Falls, then took her on a train to Lewiston, where they fell in love with the village and stayed.

With a white mustache and curly white hair, the furrow-faced Morgan, 80, retired in 1982 as a precious metals worker with DuPont.

Nielson heckles Dawn Stranges, a holistic practitioner and researcher from Batavia, who portrays Belva Lockwood, twice candidate for president of the United States before women had the vote.

Hand on hip, pointing a finger at her Lewiston listeners, Lockwood campaigns in the cemetery wearing white gloves and a blue silk dress and matching mantilla over her petticoat and corset during the Election of 1888.

"It's time for a change!" shouts a suffragette, played by Kathryn Serianni, who runs Cataract Printing in Youngstown.

"Change a diaper!" retorts Nielson, leaning on a gravestone.

Another heckler is the Man in Black, played by the Rev. Mylan "M.J." Slahor, who was pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church of Lewiston for 39 years.

Waving his Bible, the caped minister exclaims: "God told Moses to take the two tablets . . . "

"Take two tablets and call me in the morning!" a woman heckler cries out.

Playwright Henderson -- who is president of ROLE (Residents Organized for Lewiston/Porter's Environment) -- plays the whiskered Josiah Tryon, whose Abolitionist rowboat was known as Chariot of Freedom.

As portable lamps illuminate the outdoor scene at night, casting the actors' distorted shadows over the tombstones, Lewiston Supervisor Sandra Jo Maslen appears as Lydia Hewitt, wife of the first town supervisor. Her hair done up in auburn braids, she speaks before the granite shaft erected to the Hewitt family.

"I've counseled my husband on numerous occasions," she says at the end of her monologue. "Someday women will get the right to vote. Heck . . . maybe someday a woman might even get elected supervisor of the Town of Lewiston!"

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