Defendants guilty in JFK Middle School play

Published 9:01 pm Thursday, May 19, 2011

Scriptwriters and members of the cast of John F. Kennedy Middle School’s “Who Killed the Great Dismal Swamp?” Timmy Dooley, Raychelle King, Jalil White, Joey Leal, Zarriah McNeal and Richard Ross bow after their performance May 18.

John F. Kennedy Middle School’s production of “Who Killed the Great Dismal Swamp?” combined history, science and law and asked the audience to decide which characters were to blame for a massive fire in the swamp.

The performance took place in the school’s auditorium Wednesday.

The play, which has been about three months in the making, told the story of the Great Dismal Swamp from the beginning of logging under George Washington to the South One Fire in 2008, which burned for four months and destroyed almost 5,000 acres.

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The students put several defendants on trial for starting the fire, including loggers, hunters, a helicopter company and even lightning and Hurricane Isabel.

For the play, the drama club performed a script written by their fellow students who did research on and visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the project. Although the play is fictitious, it is based on real events.

John F. Kennedy teacher and drama club sponsor Kathy Applebee said she was pleased with the students’ performance.

“They rocked,” she said. “They tend to rise to the occasion.”

The audience heard the testimony of a vast array of characters, including a former slave, a red-cockaded woodpecker, a hotshot firefighter and Harriet Beecher Stowe to provide background information.

Ultimately, the jurors decided there was enough evidence to prosecute the loggers, the helicopter company and Hurricane Isabel.

According to the play, the fire was caused by loggers hired by a helicopter company to clean up the swamp after Hurricane Isabel downed thousands of trees in 2003.

The South One Fire actually was caused when equipment at a logging site sparked and started the fire, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The play had a secondary message of environmental awareness. Before court was adjourned, the judge, played by Taylor Clark, asked the audience members to always consider the effects their actions can have on the earth.

Tiffany White, whose daughter Chaunsa Saunders was part of the crew, said she thought the play’s message was a timely one.

“I think it was a good message, especially with the way things are going with the environment,” she said.

Linda Milow’s granddaughter Zarriah McNeal wrote parts of the script, including the questioning of lightning.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Milow said. “I love that they want the parents and future generations to understand what happened (during the fire).”

She added she hopes the schools continue to engage the students in active learning about the environment.

“Our future (generation) is not into science, and it’s a big part of who we are,” Milow said.