Kind Hearts, let me tell you a story that is soon to be retold.
Back in the 1940s and just after World War II, I used to ride with my grandfather in his big red-and-white Esso truck. He sold kerosene, gasoline and paraffin (for folks who canned) to a little chain of grocery stores and gas stations that ran from Sylva to Gateway and Cherokee. The countryside was mostly pasture then, and I remember the Tuckaseigee River between Wilmot and Whittier.
One morning, near Whittier we passed a curious sight. An old woman, even older than my own great-grandmother, was slowly making her way along the river bank. She was dressed in tattered clothing and was accompanied by several black dogs. She was picking up deadfall: limbs that had fallen from the big trees along the river bank. She had an impressive load of limbs on her back and moved with a slow, halting pace. As we passed, she turned a face to us that was wrinkled and scarred. It was also strangely detached. She looked like she could be God’s great-grandmother.
“Who is that, Papaw?” My grandfather gave me a fleeting smile.
“You never seen her before?” I shook my head, and he said, “Gar Nell (the way my grandparents pronounced my two names, Gary Neil), that is Nance Dude.”
Nance Dude. It would be many years before I would know all of her story – not until I had heard a dozen versions and had finally read Maurice Stanley’s book, “The Legend of Nance Dude,” which has just been issued again. My grandfather didn’t tell me much that day ... just that she was “an outcast” and lived alone in a little shack on Conleys Creek. He said that people thought she was a witch and that she had allegedly walled up her granddaughter in a cave.
I have thought a lot about that old woman. I heard that some outraged folks in Haywood County tried to hang her and that she had spent almost 15 years in prison working on the dikes on the Carolina coast. I heard that some folks didn’t think she was guilty of the crime with which she was charged and that her son-in-law might have hefted those rocks that sealed that cave.
Eventually, I came to write a play about Nance Dude. Over the years, she turned into something almost mythical to me: a female version of the biblical Job or Shakespeare’s King Lear. I learned that all of those tree limbs were converted into kindling, which she sold to the “summer folks” to start fires in their fireplaces. People passing her shack sometimes saw her working on her chopping block with a hatchet and saw the stacks of kindling neatly tied in bundles on her porch. That is where she died in 1952. She was found by her chopping block.
Now, for the reason I am telling you this tale. Elizabeth Westall has stopped acting so I lost my actress who had become famous for her portrayal of Nance Dude. I still sell a few of the DVDs that captured Elizabeth’s final performance. Recently, I talked to another veteran actress, Bobbie Curtis, about the possibility of her taking on the role. Bobbie has often appeared in “Birdell” and “The Bright Forever,” but she admitted that the idea of doing Nance intimidated her. Bobbie has decided to do the role but she has made a condition. She asks that I give her a trial run. She wants to do a performance for a limited audience ... one that will respond to her version. She feels that this should not be a “performance” since she wants to carry on a dialogue with the audience while she is reading the lines.
Well, Kind Hearts, Bobbie will do her trial run at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center auditorium on Thursday, July 9, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. If you have further questions, call me at 399-9653 or contact me by email, GCarden498@aol.com.