By Joan Doggrell
On February 9 at their annual Gala, Newnan Theatre Company formally accepted the script for "Flies at the Well," to be performed in Newnan's historic courthouse. Commissioned author Jeff Bishop was presented with a check by Project Director Caroline Abbey, NTC Board Chairman Peter Poulos, Artistic Director Paul Conroy, and Managing Director Dave Dorrell.
In June of 2010, Caroline Abbey, then chair of the Newnan Theatre Company Board of Directors, spearheaded a project that for years had been only a dream: re-enacting the 1948 John Wallace murder trial in the Coweta County courthouse where the original trial took place. With a $20,000 nest egg donated by local businesses, including a generous grant from CharterBank's Charter Foundation, Abbey issued a Request for Proposal that invited interested parties to submit plans for an original play.
A script based on Margaret Ann Barnes' famous "Murder in Coweta County" book was not an option due to the legal complexities of obtaining the rights. So prospective authors had to be prepared to write a completely new drama based on trial records, newspaper accounts and other historical records.
On behalf of Newnan Theatre Company, Abbey received thirty five proposals from authors both local and nationwide. The winning proposal was submitted by Jeff Bishop, then a reporter for the Newnan Times Herald and a historical scholar. Bishop's version of the story will be more than a trial reenactment; it will be a full-fledged drama and a musical. More readings and revisions are still in the cards, and the actual production date for the play has yet to be determined. "We need to see how audiences who know absolutely nothing about the story will react," said NTC's Artistic Director Paul Conroy.
"Musical theater is an American invention," added Conroy. "It's our contribution to the world of theater. This is an American story. There have been other musicals about trials in the South, such as 'Parade' and 'The Scottsboro Boys.' "Parade", about the Leo Frank case, was written by Alfred Uhry, author of "Driving Miss Daisy." These shows played on Broadway. So - we have high hopes for this show. We just don't want to launch it prematurely."
Shortly before NTC's formal acceptance of his script, Caroline Abbey and Joan Doggrell held the following conversation with Bishop.
Doggrell: How do you come to know so much of the history surrounding the "Murder in Coweta County" story?
Bishop: I grew up in Senoia. My family - the Couch family -- is from Senoia. In fact, one of my ancestors was an original settler. My mother was one of the first librarians in Senoia, and I remember that when Margaret Ann Barnes' book was published it was a big event. I was too little to read the book, but I did see the TV movie. We were all excited that Coweta County was going to be on national television.
Another connection for me was Danny Brooks, the grandson of Albert Brooks, one of the field hands whom John Wallace forced to burn Wilson Turner's body. Danny and I both played trumpet in the Newnan High School band.
I got interested in newspapers when I was in middle school, then high school. We printed our school newspaper, "Smoke Signals," at the Newnan Times-Herald. That was where Margaret Ann Barnes worked and where her career started. I began working for the Times Herald when I was 16 years old. I started out pushing a broom, but they also let me write. Margaret Ann Barnes and Lewis Grizzard were the two big stars of the newspaper. So I grew up with the story.
Doggrell: What did people have to say about how the book and the TV movie compared with actual events?
Bishop: Some were happy with it and others weren't. Some said Barnes made too much of a hero of Sheriff Potts. I think for the most part she did a good job of capturing the essence of what happened. Most people were just excited that Coweta County was going to be on television.
Doggrell: I know you had to write the play from scratch. Where did you start doing your research?
Bishop: The place I started, which became the core of what I wrote, was the trial transcript. There are hundreds of pages of testimony and depositions. There are also newspaper accounts - the story was in all the papers, not just locally but statewide and also nationally. So there is a lot of resource material to draw from. You can understand how Margaret Ann Barnes could go into such detail with her book.