I’ve always loved didactic fiction, from Steinbek’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH to Norris’s THE OCTOPUS to Sinclair’s THE JUNGLE. Howard Craft’s new play, ORANGE LIGHT, falls squarely in this tradition, and with the support of director Joseph Megel, the music of Rissi Palmer, and an outstanding ensemble cast, it makes for a riveting, wrenchingly emotional evening of theater.
Based on the deadly 1991 fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, the play is framed as a series of interviews for a video documentary–a modern medium deconstructed into the timeless form of live performance. Craft chose to use women actors exclusively (playing both male and female roles), to emphasize the disproportionate price that woman pay in the merciless world of predatory capitalism. He also chose fictitious names for the company, its owners, the town, and the workers we meet on stage. In an interview with INDY WEEK, Craft said he intended this choice to make the tragedy more universal, but it also allowed him to dig deep into the personal lives of his characters. In the end, that was the real purpose of this play: to drive home the fact that the 25 people who died and the 55 more who were injured–for no other reason than the greed of the owners–were all human beings, with bills and kids and cars that wouldn’t start, who were paid lousy wages and endured miserable working conditions, all for the crime of being born without a lot of choices.
Since his earliest work (including the stunning THE WISE ONES in 2005), Craft has shown an ability to create deeply human characters that command audience sympathy. Joseph Megel is the perfect director for Craft, having staged some of the best and most powerfully compassionate shows in the Triangle, including Potok’s THE CHOSEN (2004), Jim Grimsley’s WHITE PEOPLE (2005), Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE (2008), and Craft’s CALEB CALYPSO AND THE MIDNIGHT MARAUDERS (2009).
ORANGE LIGHT shines with righteous anger. It is unafraid to place blame or point fingers. But it never loses its head, or its heart.
ORANGE LIGHT runs January 30 – February 16 2020 at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company, https://www.bulldogdurham.org/orange-light