Bear Country, Shaping Up to Be an Alabama Shakespeare Hit, Opens Jan. 11

By Kenneth Jones
11 Jan 2009

Rodney Clark as Bear Bryant.
Rodney Clark as Bear Bryant.
Photo by Phil Scarsbrook

In football parlance, the world premiere of Bear Country, Michael Vigilant's new play about University of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, is already a touchdown.

The first weekend of performances of the play, which officially opens Jan. 11 in Montgomery, AL, is completely full, and a waiting list has formed, a spokesperson told Playbill.com.

Previews at ASF's 262-seat Octagon Stage began Jan. 9, and performances run to Feb. 15.

ASF's Meg Lewis said, "We are at 113.01 percent of our projected sales goal. Our entire [first] weekend…is totally full and we have a waiting list for tickets. Most weekends through the run are nearing the 'sold-out' mark, with eight performances already full, including Valentine's Day evening."

Blame it on local color. Bryant was a beloved figure in American sports, and in Alabama. The play is set in Arkansas, Texas and Tuscaloosa, AL.



Vigilant's play — for which the writer consulted some of Bryant's past players and family friends — is written for a cast of four and features Rodney Clark as Coach Bryant and Gregory Jones as Young Coach Bryant, with John Patrick Hayden and Yaegel T. Welch in multiple roles.

ASF commissioned Vigilant, the company's chief operation officer, to write the play as part of the theatre's Southern Writers' Project. It received its first reading in the 2008 Festival of New Plays and has been workshopped over the past six months.

According to ASF, "Bear Country highlights the wit and wisdom of a man who rose from the child of dirt poor sharecroppers to become the standard by which college football coaches are judged. The play focuses on Coach Bryant's characteristic leadership style and reveals some of the lesser known anecdotes and stories about his life and career, chronicling his evolution from a young man driven by poverty into an inspiring leader who left an indelible mark on the lives of his players and associates."

Vigilant told Playbill.com, "Coach Bryant's legacy of hard work, toughness, sacrifice, and integrity on the way to becoming a winner are qualities that don't go out of date. During these uncertain times, hearing those lessons directly from the coach's mouth on a theatre stage make them even more meaningful."

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Director Tom Rhoze said in production notes, "Complex subject matters always make for interesting theatre I believe, and Paul Bryant was a complex human being. Bryant's story had many chapters. The choices of which chapters to present and how to present them were crucial to the goal of telling the story in an entertaining way; so, there is a slightly unorthodox approach to the staging — one in which we adventure into the mind of the man and journey with him through life-changing events, good and bad; funny and sad."

As a playwright and lyricist, Vigilant has more than a dozen works published with Samuel French, Contemporary Drama Service and Pioneer Drama Service. Five of his plays have been picked as catalog covers. Award-winning works include Cindy Cinderella (Page Award for Best Musical) and The Wedding Ring (MAPT Award for New Work). For his lyric writing, he has received five ASCAP project grants.

The creative team includes scenic designer Katherine Ross, costume designer Elizabeth Novak, lighting designer AnneMarie Duggan and sound designer Brett Rominger.

The theatre is offering "Sideline Specials," which make a half-price ticket available with the purchase of a full-price adult ticket on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Jan. 23.

Regular price tickets are $42. For more information call the ASF box office toll free at (800) 841-4273 or go online to www.asf.net.

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The Octagon Stage is in the Carolyn Blount Theatre, home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

The nationally-acclaimed, award-winning Southern Writers' Project was founded in 1991 as an exploration and celebration of the South's rich story-telling tradition. Today SWP commissions, develops and produces new plays that explore Southern issues and the African-American experience. Through SWP, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival seeks to fulfill its mission of creating theatre that speaks specifically to the people of the region. Endowed by an anonymous donor, the Southern Writers' Project is supported nationally by generous grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and locally by the Central Alabama Community Foundation.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is among the largest Shakespeare theatres in the world. Designated as The State Theatre of Alabama, ASF has been located in Montgomery since 1985 when it moved from Anniston as a result of Mr. and Mrs. Wynton M. Blount's gift of a performing arts complex set in the 250-acre Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park.