PEMBROKE — A line formed Friday evening more than an hour before the doors opened on the first night of the revived “Strike at the Wind!,” and by show time, the lobby of the Givens Performing Arts Center on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke was overflowing with people — and anticipation.
“This play is like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” said Venita Clark, who has seen every production since 1976, but none since 2007 when it was last staged.
The community was hungry for the return of the drama, and an estimated 1,300 turned out to see the two-hour production — there was a 15-minute intermission — about Lumbee Indian hero Henry Berry Lowrie that first opened as an outdoor drama in 1976.
Many in attendance for the first of two showings brought their children, including Gaye Cushing, who was first in line with her daughter, Amanda.
“I’m excited because it’s been about 12 years since I last saw “Strike at the Wind!,” Cushing said. “It’s Amanda’s first time.
“I want this to be available to all the school children of Robeson County,” said Cushing, who is a teacher. “It’s an important story.“
Deneen Blackman, who also got in line early, said she last saw the drama 25 years ago. She expressed the feelings of many in the audience.
“I hope they continue to do it every year,” Blackman said.
A.J. Spry is 12, and said he did not know much about Henry Berry Lowrie.
“I’m related to him,” Spry said. “I’m here to learn more about him.”
Terry Locklear brought two nephews.
“I brought them here so they will know their history,” Locklear said. “Right now, they know who Henry Berry Lowrie was but not much about him.”
Many in the audience were well acquainted with the Lumbee “Robin Hood” who fought injustice against American Indians in the troubled times after the Civil War. Mark Deese was a cast member in the early 1980s and knows the script by heart.
“I like this interpretation,” Deese said. “The words are still powerful. It gives me goose bumps.”
Deese praised the newest incarnation of “Strike at the Wind!”
“The set is really good, and I like what they did with The Leader,” he said of the drama’s narrator. “You can feel the connection between Henry Berry and Rhoda.”
Although the cast is young and mostly newcomers to the drama, there were some veterans of the outdoor version of “SATW!” Stephen Pate, who played the villainous Brantley Harris for many years, returned to the stage on Friday in a new role.
Matthew Jacobs and Wynona Oxednine, who play Henry Berry and Rhoda, are new to “SATW!,” but they are veterans of many productions at UNCP and in the region. They were getting positive reviews following the performance, which was staged again on Saturday night.
Director Jonathan Drahos, who teaches in UNCP’s Theatre Department, was challenged to take an outdoor drama inside with a much smaller cast. Cast member played multiple parts, including Drahos, who portrayed Sheriff Ruben King, who is killed by Henry Berry early in what is called the “Lowrie War.”
During his comments to the audience, Drahos thanked the university, the tribe and its chairman, Harvey Godwin, who helped obtain the rights to the drama so it could be shown. Godwin once performed in the drama as Henry Berry.
“I am humbled by this project,” Drahos said. “We are going to give a fresh perspective on ‘Strike at the Wind!’ Hold on to your chairs; you’re in for a wild ride.”
Lobby signs warned of smoke and gunfire, and the drama delivered on the promise.
“SATW!” is also a love story, and the audience was moved by the romantic scenes between Henry Berry and Rhoda.
“It’s outstanding. The cast is really performing with enthusiasm, and Dr. Drahos is inspired by the story,” Travis Bryant said. “You can’t say enough about how important this is to the Lumbee people.”
James Bass, the director of GPAC, said Drahos had some doubters, but he proved them wrong.
“It really was good,” Bass said. “Honestly, there were some who doubted Jonathan Drahos’ ability to come in and take over a revered local story. He did and he did it with sensitivity and professionalism. There are some changes, but they are subtle and were very well received by the audience.”
The return of the drama was timed with Lumbee Homecoming, a two-week event that begins in earnest on Friday and runs through July 8.