The dramatic arts have had a long and glorious history in Leon, Jefferson and Gadsden counties, but not so much in Wakulla County. But for the past year, a Wakulla County native son is breaking creative ground with his Crawfordville theatre.
Herb Donaldson said the genesis for his hometown theatre actually took place 1,100 miles away among like-minded artists who were all struggling to make it in the big city.
“The group itself started in New York around 2006-2007,” he recalled. “We were all actors, writers, directors, a couple of film makers and some musicians. And we were always finding ourselves in a position to knock on the door and our knuckles were bloody as we were screaming, ‘Let us in! We want to be part of the arts world, too in some way!’”
And when no one else would give them a break, the group decided to make things happen on their own. That would eventually lead to a homecoming for Donaldson.
“We decided to start promoting ourselves doing our own plays and musical events and we were just a group who started there. Later on when I moved back here to Wakulla County in 2010 I was looking for an outlet. And quite frankly I didn’t want to drive all the way to Tallahassee,” he laughed.
And therein lies a tale with deep roots in Wakulla County’s sandy soil.
“We opened our doors here just last year. The name ‘Palavar Tree Theatre’ (came from) my grandfather. He used to live right outside Sopchoppy in a place called Buckhorn and he was known as the ‘Black Mayor’ there.”
Donaldson added it was a title richly deserved.
“He had his own café and general store to serve about 30 houses in the area and he had a tree that was outside of the café that he built a table around. People gathered around that tree for fish fries and when politicians would come out they’d address the community from that tree in order to get their vote. In Africa there’s something known as the ‘Palaver Tree.’ Whenever the community needs to sit down and have a town hall or to meet, they would meet under the largest tree in the village.”
It was there that literally anything and everything could be discussed and debated.
“But whenever anybody felt uncomfortable about making their point or saying what they wanted to say, they would use a story teller, an artist, a poet or musician to speak up on their behalf and that’s what we want to do,” Donaldson stressed. “We want to be able to speak on behalf of the people in our community. So that’s why we call it the Palaver Tree.”
In keeping with that aesthetic, Donaldson said the Palaver Tree Theatre, for which he’s the creative director, has featured some very thoughtful productions since last year’s opening.
“We just recently did ‘Buried Child’ by Sam Shepard, which was very well received. We opened our season last year with a piece from Susan Murray Parks called ‘Top Knocks Underdog.’ Even one from Jacqueline Goldfinger called ‘The Arsonists’ that actually took place in Tate’s Hell, which is right here in our area! And all of these pieces were fascinating. They were a great exploration of the American mind and spirit.”
Donaldson said the upcoming schedule is also made up of significant works that typically aren’t done by most other community theatre companies.
“’The Last Romance,’ which is a piece by Joe Pietro, is a beautiful love story about a man who’s mature in life and then falls in love when he thought the possibility of that was over. We’ve got ‘Race’ by David Mamet that not long ago came off Broadway and it deals with exactly what it says; race. There’s another piece called ‘At a Time Like This,’ and that is a story about the artist’s struggle and what it is that they do and become in order to survive. And then we also have ‘Sweat’ by Lynn Nottage. That too played Broadway for a while and I think it’s still traveling. It won a Pulitzer in 2017.”
The Palaver Tree Theatre is just now wrapping up auditions for its new season.
“We are located in the heart of Wakulla County, which is Crawfordville,” Donaldson said. “And our address is 59 Shadeville Road, which is right beside Rt. 319.”