PlayNotes for the APT production of Pierce to the Soul

The One-Person Play and Pierce to the Soul

Playwright Chiquita Mullins Lee, at the suggestion of Geoffrey Nelson, began developing this play in 2004.  Portions of the play were presented in numerous public readings, and those experiences and countless rewrites shaped a play that is very different from the first draft.  A two-act version was produced at CATCO in 2010.

PIERCE 4 (web)The major problem in developing a one-person play is how to establish dramatic tension and discovery – to keep it interesting – when there are no other actors on stage.  A one-person production will include story-telling, and the good ones will connect the stories to an “arc” or process that reveals a central understanding about the character.

One of the very first public readings of the play-in-process raised another problem:  Actor Alan Bomar Jones did not look like Elijah Pierce; he was stockier and shorter than the lean and tall woodcarver.  Some in the audience expected “Mr. Pierce” to be on stage.  After another public reading, an engaged audience member instructed Chiquita and the creative team “to get it right.” 

These reactions, while natural, miss the point:  Actors in one-person shows often do not look like the person they are depicting on stage.  Hal Holbrook, who is 6-ft, 1-in tall, has since the late 1950s played Mark Twain, who was a diminutive 5-ft, 8-in.  Central Ohio’s actor and director Geoff Nelson is 6-ft, 3-in tall, yet he received rave reviews for his portrayal of baseball entrepreneur, Branch Rickey, who was only 5-ft, 9-in. 

Lee’s play does not replicate Mr. Elijah Pierce.  Instead, she, Jones, and director Nelson have tried to find the essence of Elijah Pierce.  What lay behind this man’s life-story?  How did he become remembered as a holy man, a gentle man, an internationally known African American folk artist, and a mentor to young artists?  What obstacles did he overcome to arrive at the peaceful, holy life he led in the Lincoln-Mt. Vernon area of East Columbus during the middle twentieth century?

Without giving away too much, here is what you will encounter in the performance: 

PIERCE 5 (web)Mr. Pierce listened to numerous voices throughout his life, and it took him quite some time to filter out those he should listen to from those he should not.  

He discovered early in life his ability to carve and to barber, but his curiosity and pride sometimes blocked his finding a proper path. 

A 90-year old holy man at the time of the play, he had found his path and was helping others find theirs. 

All in all, a life fully lived, a life at the end that was full of love and respect for his Lord.

Questions to consider:

  1. How is Mr. Pierce’s pride both a help and a hindrance to finding his path in life?
  2. How did the women in his life influence his growth as a person and an artist?
  3. How did religion influence his growth as a person and an artist?
  4. How did Mr. Pierce deal with his fame, coming so late in his life as it did?
  5. How do you explain the relative lack of race distinction in his artistic work?

Click on this sentence to read playwright Chiquita Mullins Lee’s biography and dramaturge Bill Child’s essay, “Elijah Pierce and Chiquita Mullins Lee.”

— Bill Childs, Dramaturge


Dramaturge Bill Childs
Dramaturge Bill Childs

Bill Childs has worked with director Geoff Nelson as dramaturge on five productions at CATCO, including three world premieres – 1892 by Geoffrey Nelson (1992), You’re My Boy by Herb Brown (2005), and Pierce to the Soul (2010) – as well as the critically acclaimed The Grapes of Wrath (2003) and The Complete History of America (abridged) (2007).

Behind the scenes, Bill was actor Jonathan Putnam’s principle dresser for the first four CATCO productions of A Tuna Christmas and dramaturge when Jon directed Jeff Daniels’s Escanaba in Love (2006).

Bill served on the CATCO Board of Trustees from 1993-2000 (President, 1998-2000), and from 2003-October 2009.

He is a Professor of History, Emeritus, at OSU, and lives in Austin, Texas.