Soundtrack of an Ocracoke Childhood

Writer and composer Julie Howard (seated, center), surrounded by the 2015 cast and crew of "A Tale of Blackbeard." (Blackbeard was missing from this rehearsal!)
Writer and composer Julie Howard (seated, center), surrounded by the 2015 cast and crew of "A Tale of Blackbeard." (Blackbeard was missing from this rehearsal!)

A Village Girl explains why she loves "A Tale of Blackbeard."

By Mary-Chandler Storrs

Judith Thurman writes, "Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground." 

For me, this quotation seems particularly relevant with regard to Julie Howard’s A Tale of Blackbeard.” It isn’t an unreachable place for which Julie Howard’s “A Tale of Blackbeard” sends pangs of longing into the viewer’s heart, though, but rather, an unreachable time. The beautifully-composed music, and intricately-intertwined lives of the colorfully-portrayed blend of characters, both seem to transport the viewer to Ocracoke’s distant and exciting past. A past for which the play leaves the fortuitous viewer feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and longing.

It transports its audience to a time of adventure, and unchartered waters. A time of unexplored and salt-kissed lands, and of the enigmatic bravery of those willing to take on the Atlantic – in all of her majesty – leaving places and peoples conquered in their wake.

As a child, I played Katherine Farthingham in the 1994 production of the play. The 1994 run was the play’s last until 2014, when it – thankfully – was again resurrected, and once more positioned itself to inspire dreams and nostalgia in a new generation of islanders and visitors to Ocracoke Island.

Mary-Chandler as Katherine with Dave Frum as Blackbeard in 1994.
Mary-Chandler as Katherine with Dave Frum as Blackbeard in 1994.

I joined the cast of the 2014 run (this time as a Village Girl) late. Therefore, I didn’t hear any of the familiar music until my first night as a performer. On that night, last June, amidst the hustle and bustle of the electric backstage energy of a story poised to manifest as a theatrical production, Julie Howard accompanied Mariah Temple (Katherine Farthingham) one last time before the curtains opened for the evening. In that moment, the lovely melody of Julie’s song, a song that I performed two decades earlier, made the past twenty years of my life melt away. And, I was struck once again not only by the beauty of the play, but also by how it – particularly its enchanting music – had, in many ways, become the soundtrack of my childhood.

In that moment, watching and listening to Julie and Mariah, the fragility and fleeting nature of time became glaringly apparent to me. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like so very long ago that Julie was accompanying a ten year old version of myself to that very same song. 

I have always loved “A Tale of Blackbeard,” and cherished my fond memories of having been a part of the 1994 production. But, it wasn’t really until that moment last summer that I realized what a gift Julie Howard had given the entire island in the play she so ingeniously created. And, also in that moment, I realized, that: if twenty years of my own life could drift so effortlessly away upon the notes of Julie’s chords, and the melody of Mariah’s sweet voice, perhaps Blackbeard’s days on Ocracoke were not quite so distant as they sometimes seem, either…

Since that night, the adult version of me has been wanting to know more about Julie Howard the woman, the playwright, and the composer. What had inspired her to manifest her genius and musical ability into a play about Blackbeard? How long did it take her? As an author and musician myself, I continue to stand in awe of the intelligence, creativity, and… well, let’s be honest, genius, that it took to create such a work of art. So, last week, after a rehearsal for the 2015 production of the play, I had the honor of sitting down with Julie, and asking her (some of) my myriad questions. 

What follows is a sadly brief description of the chat that ensued. I use the word “sad” quite deliberately, because I very strongly believe that a book should be written about Julie Howard, the play’s origins, its various stages and phases and production locations through the years, and its recent revival. 

During last week’s interview, it became apparent to me that Julie’s own story, and “A Tale of Blackbeard”’s story are indistinguishable and inseparable. And, so are “A Tale of Blackbeard”’s history, and the history of Ocracoke itself.

Julie Howard wrote “A Tale of Blackbeard,” in the winter of 1973-74. She says she wrote and composed the entire play in just under three months. Since then, ever the true artist and ever cognizant of ways by which she can perfect her art, she has continued to tweak the work.

For example, there is a transition in the first moments of the play when the Farthingham family boards the Queen Anne’s Revenge. This scene immediately follows the beginning song, “Silence Dread,” which is a haunting tune performed by the pirates, during which the dangerous nature of the pirates and their lives is described. Julie says that the transition from this song to the Farthingham family’s entrance has always felt too quick for her.

Julie, a few years ago
Julie, a few years ago

“I know it’s just a play,” she deflects humbly, “but it has always bothered me that suddenly the Farthingham family is there, on board the ship. I always sort of felt that the audience was wondering, ‘How did they get there so quickly?’ “

 In order to address this transition, last summer, Julie wrote some additional lines for the pirates following the performance of “Silence Dread.” This year, however, there is going to be an additional song during this transition. (So that is something viewers can and should be watching and listening for). Julie wrote this never-before-performed song “three or four year ago.” She believes this will perfectly usher the Farthinghams on stage, and will additionally give the audience a sense of time passing after the foreboding and intensity of “Silence Dread.” 

I, for one, am looking very forward to hearing Julie’s newly-composed song. And I have included the story of this additional song because it is one example of Julie’s perfectionism. She has been perfecting, tweaking and transforming her play since its original creation. The inclusion of this song is only one of many examples of the ways in which Julie has continued to “perfect” the play over the years. During our interview, I teased her that she reminds me of Walt Whitman and his lifelong altering of his work “Leaves of Grass,” for which there are various accepted versions.

In any event, though Julie has been tweaking and perfecting her play for decades, she miraculously wrote it in its original entirety in just about three months. 

When I asked her what inspired her to write the play, the story that she told captivated me. Though I cannot do it justice in my paraphrasing here, it is worth recounting. 

Apparently, when Julie first moved to Ocracoke, in 1972, she participated in an already existing group of Ocracoke drama aficionados loosely termed the “Ocracoke Players.” Julie stressed to me that Ocracoke Island and its residents already had a rich tradition in dramatic productions and interest in theater when she entered the scene in ‘72. Interestingly, there was a local woman name Ruby Garrish who played the organ at the Methodist Church in those days. Mrs. Garrish also served as the accompanist for the Ocracoke Player’s skits, plays, and varying theatrical productions.

Incidentally, Julie’s first year as an Ocracoke resident also happened to be Mrs. Garrish’s last as the “go to” accompanist. Julie tells that, had it not been for Mrs. Garrish, she would have almost certainly been the accompanist for the group that first year that she lived on Ocracoke…rather than a cast member. It is important that Julie was a cast member, however, because it was at a cast party for the loosely-termed “Ocracoke Players” that Ocracoke resident Danny Garrish voiced a desire for Ocracoke to have its “own play,” possibly about Blackbeard. Julie agreed.

And she took that idea to heart, “I just thought, ‘Yea, that is an excellent idea,’” Julie remembers.

The difference between Julie and your average person, mind you, is that she took what she though was an excellent idea and transformed the original idea into a full musical, spending the majority of the following winter writing and composing and “awakened” at night by the play’s lovely songs as they “popped into her head.”

“They seemed to already exist,” Julie says, “I just discovered them.” How simply lovely an idea.

The summer of 1974 was the play's first run. It was performed in what was then the school’s recreational building (which was later moved and became Captain Ben’s and is today the Ocracoke Oyster Company). That summer, charging one dollar for children, and three dollars for adults, the play cleared a three thousand dollar profit. That profit was used to add an addition to the school’s recreational center. Unfortunately, the following year, Hyde County condemned that building. Though the players were permitted to finish the season in the original building, they eventually had to move. First to the school and in collaboration with the Ocracoke School PTA, and then later to an outdoor performance location: the deck of the Community Store.

The play was performed at the Community Store for the summer of 1978. I told Julie that I cannot believe that it was only performed there for one summer, as the tales of that famous and epic run have infiltrated the island’s history to a paramount degree. For those who were not there, it almost seems larger than life.

“It was a great run that year,” Julie admits.

Anyone who has been to the Community Store knows that the porch seems to form and ‘L’ shape. Apparently, to fit the play’s needs in ’78, the porch was fitted with another ‘L’ to form a square stage. No one was ever turned away from a performance that year, and the audience members were told to bring their own chairs(!) Also, astoundingly- or, if you’re a believer in such things (and I truly am), fated – not a single show was cancelled from rain the entire summer.

The island summer was another castmate, apparently, though. Julie describes the humid and almost unbearable heat and large mosquito presence with sincere glee. Apparently, all of the performers were so miserably sticky and hot by the end of the play, that the sailors would often just run and jump in “the creek” once it was concluded.

“We don’t do water soaked sailors, anymore,” Julie laughed.

We don’t jump in Silver Lake anymore either, unfortunately. But what a lovely image of theater and drama at its purest level – one with nature, for better or for worse – and a great deal left to the imagination of the viewer. I cannot imagine the play being any less moving or entertaining in those days. (Yes, to those of you who are reading this and haven’t actually seen it… it’s that good).

“A Tale of Blackbeard” was performed for nine summers from 1974-94. Over that twenty-year span, when it was performed, it was performed twice, sometimes even three times a week.

The poster from the 1994 production
The poster from the 1994 production

“The island was slower then,” Julie explains, “at least after dark. The last ferry was at four p.m. and almost no one had anything to do at night. We didn’t have to worry so much about conflicting work schedules and such.”

In 1977 Julie made the group “official” by founding the Ocracoke Players, Incorporated. Before that point, "A Tale of Blackbeard" was produced in conjunction with the Ocracoke School PTA.

I find it a beautiful act of love for the work of art that she created that during the dormant two decades that spanned for 1994 to 2014, Julie kept the dormant Ocracoke Players, Incorporated alive by filing the appropriate paperwork, taxes, etc. What was once the Ocracoke Players, Incorporated is now Ocracoke Alive (how very fitting a title, eh?), making Ocracoke Alive the oldest entity like it currently functioning on Ocracoke Island.

Again, I cannot begin to do the intricate history of the play and all of its varying entities and details, or Julie Howard’s genius, the justice they deserve in this short article. It is just impossible.

But quickly, as I can be quite verbose, a little about Julie Howard the woman:

Julie majored in English and minored in music at Gettysburg University, a duality which is not surprising when one considers the lyrical and musical beauty and complexity of the play. She admits that she has also written poetry and composed hymnals, but “A Tale of Blackbeard,” is her only play.

“I love for things to rhyme,” she muses, “I’ve never been one for rambling prose.” So, perhaps her similarities with Walt Whitman end after their shared genius and their perennial tweaking of their works.

To end the interview, I asked Julie what her favorite dessert is, just to end on something personal but light.

“Believe it or not, it’s a peach cheesecake that I actually make myself,” she replied with the humility and grace that embody her persona.

“You don’t say,” I replied jokingly.

For the record, Julie, that wasn’t even slightly a surprise.

For information on tickets for this year's production, please visit the Ocracoke Alive website.  


We asked Julie to share some of her Ocracoke-inspired poems and she sent us these two:


The dune grass spires stretch skyward one by one,

Stark silhouettes they stand against the blue.

With points so sharp, suppose they pierce the sun,

Or worse, impale a passing cloud or two.

Their slender blades decry the rising wind

In fleeting, fragile, timeless melody,

And on the sand, where’er they dance and bend,

Inscribe their songs of protest endlessly.


With dissonant clamor the moonlighting frogs

Pipe a warm summer’s evening away,

But their deafening choruses dwindle and fade

With the confident glimmer of day.

And soon ‘neath the glare of the hot August sun

Through the innocent marsh, silence reigns;

While the sleepy musicians condition themselves

To join the next evening’s refrains.



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