Barbara Smith bringing author Lee Smith's characters to life at Rowan Public Library

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Deirdre Parker Smith
Barbara Smith’s life changed when she met author Lee Smith. They’re not related. Except by characters.
For the last several years, Barbara Smith has done one-woman shows as Ivy Rowe, Lee Smith’s heroine in “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
Lately, she’s Molly Petree (and three other women) from Lee Smith’s latest novel, “On Agate Hill.”
Barbara Smith will take on Molly et al Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Rowan Public Library Friends of the Library annual meeting.
She can’t wait. She was here in 2000 with “Buck-o’s and Lady Misses from Fred Chappell Country.” Chappell is another favorite writer.
Barbara performed Ivy Rowe off-Broadway in New York in 1991. Since then, she has been playing characters all over the country, and has moved from Florida to the North Carolina mountains.
She lives here now because of Lee Smith’s characters. “My peers teased me that I was becoming a mountain woman. Lee says I already have.
“Something about the way she writes just pulls me in.
“I don’t know how to explain the connection,” Barbara Smith says, “but I love her (Lee Smith) characters.”
Barbara is a professional actress performing in traditional, multi-character plays for some years.
She feels a connection to Ivy and her life in letters. “She said as a teenager, ‘I’m bad, bad and rotten clear through.’ That’s better than playing those real sweet heroic women.”
Barbara Smith met Lee Smith and asked her permission to adapt “Fair and Tender Ladies.” She said, “Sure, go ahead.” Ordinarily, Lee Smith would have said no, but she decided Barbara was as feisty as Ivy.
Barbara has done the show about 700 times, she guesses. “I love the material. I feel at home with it.”
“B. Smith Does Lee Smith” is a sampler of the author’s work, using novels and short stories. Barbara also does “Christmas Letters.”
“On Agate Hill” came next. “Somebody said they heard my voice in ‘On Agate Hill.’ ” Barbara says, quoting a line by Molly Petree, “I know I am a spitfire and a burden and I do not care.”
The big challenge with Molly is that “while Ivy is one woman’s life in her voice in chronological letters, Molly starts in her voice, then three other characters take over her story and they’re very interesting. It’s much more complex than Ivy Rowe.
“Ivy never leaves the mountains. Molly moves around and other people take over her story.”
Barbara has been doing the shows for so long, mostly in places like libraries, that she has learned how to play the characters without any scenery, just some props and tricks. “And the audience will stay with you.”
A special feature of “On Agate Hill” is music.
She used to use a soundtrack, but when she moved to the mountains, she met a musician, Jeff Sebens, of Cana, Va., who accompanies her now. “He plays three instruments, the hammered dulcimer, the lap dulcimer,” and because Molly’s is a love story, and the object of her affection is a banjo player, Sebens made a point to add that to the show.
“I would not do this piece without music.”
In her new home in Haywood County, Barbara can do her Lee Smith shows and traditional plays. “I’m going to do Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’ at HART, the Haywood Arts Regional Theater in Waynesville.”
She also does “Ellen Foster” by Kaye Gibbons, but it turned out not to be the collaboration she was hoping for. Gibbons was working with her on an adaptation, and then started having problems with depression.
She feels like North Carolina writers are a special gift. “There must be something in the water,” she says.
Doing shows about Lee Smith’s characters has allowed her to perform all over the state, and she’s happy to come back to Salisbury and the library.
“Ivy Rowe took on a life of her own. I feel like that with this, too. It just took off. … I’m on a mission …”
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” Barbara says. “‘Fair and Tender Ladies’ is really the life changer.”
Barbara Smith’s free performance will be at 7 p.m. at Rowan Public Library headquarters. She likes to do a talk-back following the one-hour performance.