On Christmas Day in 1929, Charlie Lawson killed his wife and six children before taking his own life on a small farm in the Germanton area.
The tale of that tragedy, and the attention it got throughout the region, has, over the years, become a part of the fabric of Stokes County. Books have been written about the killings and people can still be found talking about it in country stores.
Over three weekends in August, residents of Stokes County will have a new way to learn about the tragedy, thanks to the efforts of Rural Hall playwright Justin Hall and director Justin Bulla.
They have been working together for the past couple of years, at the request of the Stokes County Arts Council, to develop a tasteful way to present the well-known tragedy on stage.
“We decided to take a page from how they used to deal with tragedy in Greek theater,” said Hall. “You have this Greek chorus of people that act as narrators telling things to the audience instead of actually depicting the horrible things on stage.”
He said “The Meaning of Our Tears,” his theatrical adaptation of the book by author Trudy J. Smith based on the Lawson Family tragedy, would take a similar approach.
“We have a chorus of residents of Germanton from that time period that act as narrators,” said Hall. “They give a slice of life of what it was like to live during that time. When it comes time for the actual murders to occur, we have already established this relationship with this group of people who tell us about it.”
Hall said he spent about a year researching the murders and what life was like in the area in 1929.
“We got permission from Trudie Smith to use both of her novels, ‘White Christmas , Bloody Christmas’ and ‘The Meaning of our Tears,’ as the source material,” he said. “Trudie was a font of knowledge. She talked to a lot of extended family and also did a lot of extended research as to what was happening agriculturally in Germanton.
“We also did research into what was happening in that time period of 1929 and the years leading up to it to form the time Charlie moved into Germanton until the point of the murders,” added Hall. “We were figuring out things like what kind of music they were listening to, what it was like to be a tobacco farmer and the actual steps to harvest and grow a tobacco crop at that time.”
He said the play, while dealing with the Lawson murders, is actually about the Lawson family and what it was like to live in Germanton in that time.
“It is easy to think of this as a melodrama and being about a gory murder, but we really want you to look at the event and the story of Charlie Lawson and his family as a deterioration of a man of this time right before the stock market crashed,” said Hall. “I think people will be surprised by that and that it will not be a black and white story. All of the facts are still there, but I think you will have a better understanding that this was a person and this was not what he was born to do.
“When writing I was trying to find a balance of not making Charlie be a villain from the moment he stepped on stage,” said Hall. “You have to humanize him and make him a fully fleshed out, rounded person that loved his family but made very bad choices at the end of his life.
But despite that, Hall, who has written plays since middle school including several murder mystery dinner theater plays performed in Stokes County, said writing about the tragedy was not always easy.
“Having to go through the process of making Charlie Lawson a character you could understand and then having that persona doing these things, especially to his youngest children, it does kind of hurt you,” he said. “It haunts you.”
Bulla said it was hard to cast the play, given the gravity of the subject matter.
“The cast is about 18 to 20 people so it is the largest cast for a community theater production we have ever had in Stokes County,” he said. “Most of the people who auditioned were people I had worked with before.
“Everyone is being really truthful and very respectful and honest in their approach and delivery of these characters,” he added. “They are not in it to make it something it is not. Robert Evans, who plays Charlie, is not trying to make him a crazy guy, he is trying to make him a real man, a real dad. The whole cast is trying to make these people real and they are doing a really good job with that.
“Our number one concern is that we want this production to be respectful,” he added. “Even though the Lawsons are not part of my family, this story is part of my geographic heritage and we want this retelling to be respectful. Everything in this production is pulled strictly from the book. We are not generating any new thoughts, we are specifically taking what is from the book.”
But Bulla said the location of the performance, at South Stokes High School, added some poignancy to the play that could not be found at other venues.
“The road you travel to the play is the same road the Lawson’s traveled every day,” he said. “You will pass Palmyra Church which is where they are planning to go to a Christmas pageant at in the play.
“There is a certain authenticity by having it performed in Stokes County and in theatrical space which is less than a few miles from where it all happened,” agreed Hall.
“The Meaning of Our Tears” performances are scheduled for the weekends of Aug. 7-9, 14-16, and 21-23 at South Stokes High School, 1100 S. Stokes High Drive in Walnut Cove.
Tickets are already on sale and can be purchased by calling the Stokes County Arts Council at 336-593-8159. Performance times are 7 p.m. for all scheduled Friday and Saturday shows and 3 p.m. for Sunday shows. Stokes Arts has designated a portion of the proceeds from the performances in support of Stokes County domestic violence advocacy and renovations to the South Stokes High School auditorium.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.