“You wouldn’t expect…” That North Carolina sterilized 8,000 people between 1933 and 1973.
That’s the premise of a local play chronicling the North Carolina Eugenics Program, which resulted in the forced sterilization of mentally handicapped and underprivileged people statewide.
“Even though it’s a dark piece of our history, it’s a piece that we need to expose,” said playwright Marilynn Anselmi, director of the East Carolina University/ North Carolina State University Collaborative at the Gateway Technology Center in Rocky Mount.
“It’s an eye-opener,” said Jayson Duckett of Tarboro, who plays dual roles in “You Wouldn’t Expect. “It’s very powerful and there’s a twist in the story. It centers around four of the victims of this horrible thing that transpired.”
One of those victims is Ginny Rivers, played by 13-year-old Kyra Woodard of Wilson. Her actual mother Valerie Woodard plays the part of her character’s mother, May Rivers. Ginny is representative of the victims of the Eugenics Program.
“African-American women were disproportionately targeted,” Anselmi noted.
“People need to know what happened. I think it’s a part of history that we should never forget or repeat,” said Valerie Woodard. She and other cast members have shed tears because some of the scenes in the play are “so powerful,” Duckett pointed out.
Tim Peck, the play’s director, said he thinks the “emotional intensity” in the script will allow the audience to “relate to the characters and share the experience as they watch it.”
Anselmi’s goal in “You Wouldn’t Expect” is to dramatically portray personal stories of victims while exposing the “overall impact” of the eugenics program. At the beginning and end of the play, names of famous people who were mentally challenged or grew up in poverty are recited.
“If they had lived in North Carolina, they might not be here today. Every individual can relate to at least one of these names,” Duckett said.
Duckett’s vastly different characters in the play are Mr. Kinley, a social worker who is an enforcer of the sterilizations, and Richard Banor, a “chauvinistic redneck” who signs the papers for his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, to be sterilized. In such a serious, dramatic play, Banor provides “comic relief,” although the humor is somewhat uncomfortable, Duckett said. The audience is likely to ask the question:
“Is this guy for real?”
Duckett said he had to “dig deep down” in his soul and find a dark place in order to play the character of Banor.
“This is something way out of what I normally do,” he said. Anselmi identified Duckett as being “ideal” for the role of Banor after seeing his acting in performances as a member of the Tar River Players. Some of Duckett’s past roles include disreputable Old Joe and Scrooge’s Nephew Fred in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and Constable Warren in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
While “You Wouldn’t Expect” might not have the same level of entertainment as other plays in which Duckett has played a role, it is certainly informative.
“I hope that people come away with new knowledge,” Peck said.
The Eugenics Program was established by scientists and with the theory that preventing mentally challenged individuals from procreating would improve the overall genetics of the human race, thus the formation of the “Human Betterment League” which propagated the program.
As character Mary Tom Walker, director of the N.C. Eugenics Program, says in the play, “We’re preventing the worst of the bad seeds from getting to the next generation.” (Christine Rogers of Raleigh plays the role of Walker). The N.C. Senate formally overturned the Eugenics Program in 2003.
As part of the Eugenics Program, 60,000 people were sterilized nationwide.
“It’s really striking. There are people still alive who were a part of this,” said Scottie Helm, the play’s assistant director.
“You Wouldn’t Expect” will come to Edgecombe Community College’s McIntrye Auditorium for a matinee performance at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets will be available at the door.