Middle school play takes audience to court

Published 10:57 pm Monday, May 16, 2011

Seventh-grader Shanice Whitley, right, portraying a butterfly, provides testimony about the 2008 fire in the Great Dismal Swamp for the prosecutor, Daeja Godette, left, and the judge, Taylor Clark, in the play “Who Killed the Great Dismal Swamp.”

John F. Kennedy Middle School students put loggers, hunters, fishermen, a helicopter company and even lightning on trial for the South One Wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp in 2008.

The drama club will present “Who Killed the Great Dismal Swamp” in the school’s auditorium Wednesday at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

The fictitious play based on the real events turns the circumstances surrounding the fire into a courtroom drama in which the audience plays the jury.

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After hearing testimony from characters including a fisherman and a bald eagle, the audience will decided if any of the characters are to blame for the wildfire that burnt nearly 5,000 acres of the swamp over the course of four months.

Students were heavily involved in the project by writing the script, creating exhibits and props and completing research.

Drama club sponsor and John F. Kennedy teacher Kathy Applebee said the play is only part of what the students have studied about the Great Dismal Swamp.

Starting in February, the students in her alternative education classes have learned about the swamp and its environmental and historic importance.

The students researched different topics about the swamp, such as its part in the Underground Railroad and the importance of controlled burnings.

At the end of March, some students visited the swamp to do soil and water testing with equipment provided by a grant from the South Hampton Roads Resource Conservation and Development Council.

After all the preparation, students wrote the script to put on a production that combines several subjects and includes Standards of Learning test materials.

“They learned a whole lot of science as well as learning about courtroom procedures and drama,” Applebee said.

Seventh-grader Taylor Clark, who plays the judge, said she has gained a lot of knowledge about the court system by being in the play.

“I’ve definitely learned courtroom practices because I’ve never been inside of a courtroom,” she said.

Eighth-grader Zarriah McNeal, who wrote part of the play, said she learned a lot while researching the Great Dismal Swamp, such as the details surrounding the 2008 fire.

“I also found out they do controlled fires because it’s good for the environment,” she said.

Many of the students said they hope the audience will learn the impact everyone has on the environment.

Sixth-grader Selina Davis, who plays the bailiff, said she wants those who attend the play to learn to be more cautious about taking care of the environment.

“We don’t want the next generation to suffer for our mistakes,” she said.

Raychelle King, an eighth-grader who plays Harriet Beecher Stowe and the bald eagle, said she hopes audience members learn why some animals are needed.

“If you want flowers, you need butterflies,” she said.

Applebee said she is proud of the students in her class and drama club for making the play their own.

“I’m really pleased how the kids have taken ownership of this,” she said.

She said she thinks the students have realized history didn’t just happen in Jamestown and Williamsburg, but also happened in Suffolk.

For more information on the play, call John F. Kennedy Middle School at 934-6212.