Stepping off the page and onto the stage

by Lenise Willis

Families are filled with mysteries and surprises: a member who constantly gets into trouble, someone who causes the family embarrassment, a dark secret to be kept from the outside world. Deeply rooted and filled with complications, families are like small societies that could be observed and discussed in anthropology classes or, even better, perhaps over a few years of therapy sessions.

Touching on the operations of family, “Tongues of Fire” is a short story from the collection Mrs. Dorothy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger by North Carolina writer Lee Smith. Bringing her narrative off the page and onto the stage is Touring Theatre of North Carolina, which in its 32nd year has adapted the short story for a stage performance.

“It is darkly comic,” said director and theater founder Brenda Schleunes.

“I think it is a good piece to bring to the UpStage Cabaret. It’s highly entertaining and people will recognize themselves in it and hopefully laugh at themselves.”

Written in an approachable, conversation-like tone, Smith’s work usually concerns ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. In her “Tongues of Fire” a 13-year-old girl struggles to find her place after her father has a nervous breakdown and her brother suffers from a wreck. With her mother more focused on maintaining appearances, the girl seeks attention from a working-class church, where she is baptized in a plastic swimming pool and begins speaking in tongues.

“She’s very romantic, as most 13-year-olds are,” Schleunes said. “But her romance more centers on religion.”

To adapt the story into a script, Schleunes says the theatre has added a female a cappella trio, who act as the minor characters in the story. “Touring Theatre tries to interweave music in everything that it does because we’re so stark,” Schleunes said. The music helps to develop Smith’s words into a more complete experience for the audience. Of course, the stage set is a main component of a visual production, but Schleunes says this poses much more difficulty. Because the original story is meant to be read rather than seen, the setting can be limitless and change often. This means that the stage set of the adaptation must be almost bare so it can transform with the story and its flashbacks. The Tongues of Fire set is basic and centers on a set of stools from which the characters perform much of their narrative. The characters’ costumes, however, help to place the audience in the correct time period, whether it is in the present or back in the 1950s.

Schleunes also had to split in half the main character in the short story. Instead of one narrator, the stage production has two: the present-time narrator looking back in hindsight and the 13-year-old who acts in flashbacks.

The purpose of the Touring Theatre of North Carolina is dedicated to bringing literature and history to the stage. Tongues of Fire, falling under the literature category, is the second installment of the theatre’s Kinfolk series, a three-year series dedicated to North Carolina writers who cover the topic of family. To describe the importance of the Kinfolk series, Schleunes used the words of poet Fred Chappell: “Writing about family is the way for the poet (or writer) to approach history, politics, culture, psychology, economics and so forth with intense and personally engaged language.”

“Basically, when you write about family, you write about every issue almost that comes into play,” Schleunes added. With “Tongues of Fire” there is certainly history because it’s set in the 1950s. [Chappell’s quote] talks about how the poet has a real stake in the past that gives rise to his or her sensibility, and I think “Tongues of Fire” has that. I think Lee says herself that this is her most autobiographical story.

“Because stimulating conversation is what we do, talking about family brings up so many important issues.”

Oftentimes, Touring Theatre has a discussion after each performance to foster that purpose of igniting conversation. “Probably what most people will take away from it is common experiences, and that’s what makes it funny,” Schleunes said. “People are going to see themselves in it.”

wanna go?

“Tongues of Fire” in the UpStage Cabaret, 232 S. Elm St., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit