Curtain falls on statehood play effort

WHEELING – It appears the curtain has fallen on efforts to stage a local production of a play about slavery, civil rights and the role those issues played in West Virginia’s birth.

A lack of funds forced the J.R. Clifford Project to cancel its plan to present “A New Home for Liberty” in Wheeling this year, according to organization co-founder and Charleston lawyer Tom Rodd. The play wasn’t going to be held until this fall, but organizers needed to make a final decision this spring to leave enough time to find a local director, cast and prepare for the show.

“We were hoping for some major funding from a couple sources that did not come through, and we simply will not have the resources to put on a major Wheeling production – even assuming we could raise a good bit of money locally,” Rodd said.

The news was particularly disappointing for Rodd, who wrote the play. He had hoped to present the show in Wheeling – the Mountain State’s first capital city and site of its statehood conventions – during 2013, the 150th anniversary year of the state’s admission to the Union.

Organizers had estimated total production expenses at more than $25,000. Fundraising is crucial to the effort because the J.R. Clifford Project refuses to charge admission for the play to open it to as wide an audience as possible.

The idea seemed to be gaining momentum, with a February organizational meeting drawing more than 20 people who expressed interest in helping the J.R. Clifford Project raise funds and find a local cast. The group also had secured an October date at the historic Capitol Theatre downtown.

“It hurts a lot to report this bad news … because we met with so many good people who expressed enthusiasm and support for this project,” Rodd said.

The play explores the Mountain State’s unique statehood story by focusing on how its founders dealt with the divisive issues of slavery and civil rights. Its main characters include Clifford, and Granville Hall, an early editor of the Wheeling Intelligencer who faced ridicule for his upbringing in an ardently anti-slavery household.

Over the last two years, the group has staged the play in Morgantown, Charleston and Shepherdstown, W.Va., before audiences of several hundred, according to Rodd.