Q&A with the playwright
Editor's Note: Joan Doggrell and Caroline Abbey of Newnan Theatre Company recently sat down with Jeff Bishop, author of “Flies at the Well,” to talk about the story and his interest in the 1948 murder and trial of John Wallace that inspired the play.
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.
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.
My proposal relied very heavily on the trial transcript. My big challenge in revising was to move away from the transcript. I wanted do a play, which is not the same thing as a trial re-enactment. So parts of the play are re-enactments of bits and pieces of the trial, but as a whole it tries to be a cohesive story.
* * *
Doggrell: Of course, anytime you’re putting on a play you’ve got a single location, a stage, but in this case a courthouse. How did you deal with that limitation?
Bishop: That was the big challenge from the very start.
I think limitations are the best way to inspire creativity. I knew my play would be very different from the book. In the movie and the book, you can follow the investigation from place to place. You can go to the scene of the crime in Moreland, to Sheriff Potts’ office, Mayhayley Lancaster’s house.
The challenge became how to use the courthouse in a way that was not confining. So the way the play unfolds, you start out in the courthouse hearing testimony. But then it diverges bit by bit until in the second act you’re in the woods. The courthouse becomes the forest.
* * *
Abbey: Do you think that down the road it will be possible for another theater – say in Seattle, Washington – to perform this play?
Bishop: As a matter of fact, Paul Conroy (NTC’s artistic director) wants it to not be bound absolutely to the courthouse so we could take it into the theater space or even other theaters in other towns. The set would have to mimic a courthouse as a starting point. Then as the play morphs into other scenes, a theater space might help facilitate the scene changes with lighting, special effects, etc.
* * *
Abbey: But the Newnan courthouse is an amazing draw.
Bishop: And that was the guiding force all along: that the play could actually be performed in the courthouse. So all time I was writing, that was front and center in my mind.
* * *
Doggrell: I understand that your play will be a musical. Is it going to be like an opera, with every speech sung, or will the music simply be in the background?
Bishop: The musical concept threw some people for a loop. I started off with the whole tradition of sacred harp, which seemed very appropriate to this material.
Shaped note singing is an old southern tradition that has spread to other parts of the country. There’s something raw and primal about it which seemed appropriate for this kind of material. It’s very much from the soul.
Then I saw that the jurors could serve as a Greek chorus. They would be the singers. But as we reread the play, the singing component expanded to include not just the sacred harp but also Gospel singing, field songs, prison songs, and country songs – what my grandfather called hillbilly music. All these styles are very southern and from that time period.
We’re not just trying to tell the story but to have people emotionally involved in the story. Music has been an integral part of theater from the beginning. The Greek chorus sang the play. Then the soloist became the first actor, moving apart from the chorus. That evolved to what we think of as theater now.
The jury’s going to be there to listen to the testimony. The Greek chorus served the same purpose of passing judgment and also commenting on the action of the play. I thought that seemed very appropriate for this particular story – something that was visceral, emotional, and deeply traditional as well as very modern.
The 20th century theater tradition has leaned toward realism. The more ancient tradition is to get behind the surface of things to the emotional truth. So that’s what I was trying to tap into – getting at truth through emotional connections. This purpose is really well served through music.
* * *
Abbey: Do you envision some of the non-sacred harp music with accompaniment?
Bishop: Yes, definitely. As a matter of fact, Wilson Turner in this play is a banjo picker. And so he will definitely be playing the banjo every time he shows up. We don’t have Wilson Turner’s testimony – he was, after all, the murder victim. So the challenge is, how do you make him come alive and speak?
Old Southern songs are ballads, and they’re very sad – they’re laments – and some of these ballads tell stories similar to what happened to Wilson Turner. So I thought, if we could incorporate some of these, it would be a way to kind of bring him back to life. Even though we can’t make him speak, we have music of that time about people with lives like his.
My grandfather was living that kind of life, around that same time period. He was involved in the moonshine business. He was a sharecropper, a mill worker and he played guitar, mandolin and the dulcimer. So when I was thinking of Wilson Turner, trying to bring him to life, my grandfather served as a great model.
* * *
Abbey: What makes this play more than just another murder story?
Bishop: If this were just a story about a murder – well, how interesting is that? So why is this murder different? For me this event marks a turning point in Southern history. Traditionally, whoever owned the land – that’s who counted.
The male landowners could vote. They ran for political office. They were the leaders and business owners. They had the power.
Now my great-grandfather was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. He didn’t count. He didn’t have the same kind of rights that the landowners did. If you were an African-American, you really didn’t count.
John Wallace thought he could get away with this murder. He was a land-owning white man. The main people testifying against him, the ones involved in disposing of the body, were his field hands. He didn’t suspect that anybody would actually take the testimony of an African-American seriously.
He didn’t even suspect that they would be in court testifying against him.
So, to me, the significance is the fact that African-Americans did testify against a land-owning white man, and he was convicted based on that testimony – and also that the sheriff thought it was honestly worth the trouble to prosecute over the murder of a sharecropper, a moonshiner.
For me personally, what made it resonate was that we had a Deep South where certain people mattered and certain people did not. After this trial, we had a South where maybe it was possible that other people did matter. Sharecroppers mattered. African-Americans mattered. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving toward a different kind of society. This was a step along the way.