It's outdoor drama season across the Southeast

J. H. Osborne • Jul 7, 2019 at 8:30 PM

I became a fan of outdoor dramas, which often link their plots to historic events of the area where they are produced, when I was a child traveling with my parents. I especially remember “Cross and Sword” in St. Augustine, Fla., and “The Common Glory” in Williamsburg, Va. The former told the story of the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. The play ran each summer in an amphitheater in Anastasia State Park from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. I’ve found references online to an effort to revive it. The latter told the story of the Jamestown colony’s earliest years. My parents and I went in 1976 as we made a U.S. Bicentennial tour, hitting Richmond, Jamestown, Williamsburg, and finally Washington, D.C.

While neither of those outdoor dramas appear to have survived, others from my childhood — and closer to home — survive and thrive: “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in Big Stone Gap, Va.; “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals” in Elizabethton; “Horn in the West” in Boone, N.C.; and “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee, N.C.

Mom and I made what is becoming our annual pilgrimage to “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” for opening night last week. As always, we really enjoyed it. I predict this year’s production will be a big hit. It began to sprinkle during the first act, but not so much as to delay the show. Most audience members simply pulled up hoodies from the backs of their jackets. And yes, even though it is summer, the temperature typically drops a good deal as the sun sets and the show is underway. So a jacket is a good idea, no matter the rain forecast. At intermission, the rain got heavier for a bit, and it was announced the second act would be delayed 10 or 20 minutes. It just gave everyone more time to use the restrooms and visit the concession stand and gift shop.

The box office and doors to the June Tolliver Playhouse open at 7 p.m. and there’s some pre-show entertainment before the actual play at 8 p.m. The drama tells the story of a young mountain girl named June Tolliver as she goes to “the Gap” from her home in the hills to attend school at the behest of Jack Hale, an engineer helping develop the coal industry in the 1890s. There’s a feud between two families. There’s a killing and a trial. There’s some beautiful music, but our favorite is the finale “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” If you look it up on YouTube, you can find it performed by a wide range of artists — from Arthur Godfrey to Laurel & Hardy. (Yes, Laurel & Hardy). I usually drive home humming, “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the Lonesome Pine. ... ”

“Trail” is the official outdoor drama of Virginia, and this is its 56th annual season. New this year are Director Ryan Tackett Wardell and General Manager/Producer Jim Wardell. It will be performed each Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Aug. 24. I advise ordering your tickets in advance. Admission is $8 on Thursdays. Children under 6 get in free. On Fridays and Saturdays, children 6-12, military, and seniors (55-plus) are $10. Adults (13-plus) are $15.

We’d arrived a little early (believe it or not) and had a delightful visit to the June Tolliver House and its gift shop, next door to the playhouse. I’ll be early on purpose next time so I can visit it again.

“Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals,” the official outdoor drama of Tennessee, begins its 41st season July 11 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and continues for a three-weekend run — Thursdays through Saturdays — beginning each evening at 7:30 in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater. The drama is presented by a cast of local performers against the backdrop of Fort Watauga. “Liberty!” portrays the significant history of Sycamore Shoals during the late 18th century. Doors open at 6 p.m. The concession stand opens at 6:30. For more information, call the park at (423) 543-5808. Tickets are also available online at www.friendsofsycamoreshoals.org. A special performance on July 11 offers free admission to first responders (and one companion).

“Horn in the West,” the nation’s longest-running Revolutionary War outdoor drama, according to its website, “brings to life the story of the hardy pioneers who, with the help of famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, and Cherokee allies, settled in the Blue Ridge wilderness as they sought freedom from British tyranny.” Its 68th season is scheduled to begin June 21 and run through Aug. 10. Performances run Tuesdays through Sundays beginning at 8 p.m. The house gates open at 7:30. Go early and tour the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum, which opens at 5:30 on show nights. There are several tiers of ticket pricing, depending on seat locations, ranging from $15 to $25 for children 12 and under, and from $20 to $45 for adults. You may order tickets online or call the box office at (828) 264-2120.

“Unto These Hills” has been telling the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians since 1949. The play opens with the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto in 1540. The appearance of DeSoto and his army establishes an ominous portent of what will befall the Cherokee Nation during the next 300 years. It ends after telling the history of the Cherokee up to the infamous Trail of Tears, in which some of the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homelands. This year’s season is underway and continues through Aug. 17. Doors open at 7 p.m., with pre-show entertainment at 7:30. The drama begins at 8. There are multiple tiers of ticket pricing, and matinees are offered on a limited number of days. For more information, visit www.cherokeehistorical.org.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at josborne@timesnews.net.