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Intrigue and history provide inspiration for the play “The Cook”

the_Cook_t.jpgBOONE—Georgia Rhoades has been traveling to Ireland since 1995. Her trips have allowed her to travel back in time to 18th-century Derry to research the story of Cecily Jackson, who was convicted of petty treason and executed by burning in 1725.

Bohr and RhoadesDennis Bohr, left, and Georgia Rhoades hold a copy of the playbill for Rhoades’ recent work “The Cook,” which was performed at The Playhouse in Derry, Northern Ireland this summer. (Photo courtesy of Jenni Doherty, Little Acorns Bookshop, Derry)

the Cook.jpgPlaybill from “The Cook” written by Professor Georgia Rhoades and performed in Derry, Northern Ireland. (Image courtesy of The Playhouse)

Monica_Davis_and_babyRachel Melaugh played the role of Cecily Jackson in the Derry, Ireland, production of the play “The Cook,” written by Georgia Rhoades, a professor of English at Appalachian State University. (Photo by Gavin Connolly of GC Photographics)

Rhoades, a professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Appalachian State University, saw her research come to fruition this summer with the staging of her play “The Cook” in June at The Playhouse in Derry, Northern Ireland.  The Playhouse founder Pauline Ross commissioned Rhoades to write a play about Jackson and the circumstances of her death.

The play’s four-night run played to full houses as part of the Derry/Londonderry City of Culture festival.  Derry was chosen as the European Union’s first City of Culture in 2013, resulting in a year of music, theatre and visual art in the city.

The play was directed by Dennis Bohr, a lecturer in Appalachian’s Department of English. Bohr and Rhoades are cofounders with Mary Anne Maier of the theater troupe Black Sheep Theatre, which has performed original works at The Playhouse in Derry since 1995.

Jackson was a cook for Bishop William Nicholson, a Protestant bishop who came to Derry from England in the early 1700s. Rhoades located details about the bishop’s life in the archives of St. Columb’s Cathedral, the University of Ulster Magee library, Derry City Library, and elsewhere, including his biography. But little was known about Jackson other than she had given birth to a baby who was found dead in a trunk in her room.

“She was accused of infanticide, which was considered petty treason,” Rhoades said. “The penalty that was still on the books for women was to be burned.” Jackson was the last woman to be burned at the stake in Derry.

“At first I couldn’t figure out how to tell her story,” Rhoades said. “But each time we returned to Derry, I’d find new information that I thought I might use.”

A creative breakthrough occurred when Rhoades saw a play set in an 18th-century house the bishop would have visited. “That piece, and a collection of letters by an 18th century woman in Northern Ireland, gave me background about women’s lives at that time,” she said.

A museum exhibit also helped place Rhoades in the time period, as well as books of 18th-century recipes.

Rhoades used that information to imagine what Jackson’s life might have been like in the year before her execution and events that led to her death. “Writing the play became easy then,” Rhoades said.

Bohr said he saw Rhoades’ writing evolve through her iterations of the play: “I tend to think of Georgia’s writing as dramatic poetry. While the play is still very poetic in nature, it changed   from long monologues into more conversations. She created different characters to tell the story.”

The play was cast with Derry actors by a production manager in Derry. Bohr began working with the actors, who ranged from age 7 to 70, just two weeks before opening night. The play received very positive reviews and The Playhouse is hoping to arrange an Irish tour.

Black Sheep has produced Rhoades’ play “Witchwork” at The Playhouse as well “Pope. Joan: The Hiss of the Snake,” written by Bohr and directed by Maier; and “Macbeth: The Play That Dare Not Speak its Name,” written and directed by Bohr.

Both Rhoades and Bohr said the experience of researching, writing and presenting plays in Derry enhances their teaching. Rhoades teaches women’s studies courses, including a course on Irish women writers and rhetoric and composition. Bohr teaches courses on writing.

Rhoades said, “I can talk about Northern Irish women’s drama and theatre in a way that I wouldn’t be able if I didn’t know the people there and hadn’t had the opportunity to visit so often.”

Rhoades hopes to bring the actors from Derry to Appalachian to perform her most recent work “It would be a great cross-cultural exchange,” she said. She and Ross are also hoping to have a plaque installed on Bishop’s Gate in Derry to commemorate Jackson.