One of North Carolina’s home-grown entertainment industries is live outdoor theater, a tradition that goes back to 1937 when “The Lost Colony” debuted in Manteo. Its year-after-year success – young Andy Griffith was a cast member from 1947 to 1953 – spawned more.
The shows are historical dramas, often about individuals’ decisions at key moments: Snow Camp Theatre, in Alamance County, does “Sword of Peace” and “Pathways to Freedom” about area Quakers’ involvement in, respectively, the Revolution and the Underground Railroad. At Cherokee’s Mountainside Theatre, “Unto These Hills” addresses the Cherokees’ tragic Trail of Tears. In Valdese, “From This Day Forward” recounts the story of the persecuted Waldensians whose ancestors eventually founded the Burke County town. In Halifax, “First for Freedom” covers that town’s Halifax Resolves – a 1776 precursor to the Declaration of Independence – and Boone’s “Horn in the West” surveys the part played by Daniel Boone and others on the frontier who opposed the redcoats.
But for murder and sordid behavior, you have to head to Wilkesboro for a show that will get you whistling: “Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend.”
The plot is as murky as the event it’s based on and the trial it led to. And at the end of every performance, the audience serves as the jury.
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The gruesome 1866 murder of Laura Foster shocked Wilkes County residents. The arrest, trial and execution of her purported lover for the crime captivated the nation.
A fictionalized folk song about the whole affair became an international hit by the Kingston Trio in 1958, and on various days through Aug. 1 you can see the original story played out: outdoors, 25 minutes from where it took place.
“Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend” is staged in Forest’s Edge Amphitheatre in Wilkesboro’s Fort Hamby Park. The production, in its 15th summer, begins by establishing the love triangle that involved Confederate veteran Tom Dula (pronounced “Dooley”) and cousins Laura Foster and Ann Foster-Melton.
Foster was last seen alive in May 1866, riding from her father’s home, supposedly to elope with Dula. It was said Dula had an illicit relationship with the married Melton while romancing Foster.
Then and now, there’s debate over whether Foster-Melton or Dula killed Foster. Dula immediately fled to Tennessee; according to secondhand testimony by Pauline “Perline” Foster – said by some to be related to the cousins – Foster-Melton knew where the body had been buried. Stories of bed-hopping and shared syphilis further heated and confused the situation.
Dula was captured and returned; because of pretrial publicity, the case was moved from Wilkesboro to Statesville, where Dula’s celebrity attorney – former governor and future U.S. Sen. Zebulon Vance – was unable to keep his client from the gallows. To the end, Dula denied guilt. Foster-Melton, tried separately, was acquitted. Dula’s alleged accomplice, Jack Keaton, was set free.
The facts and allegations of the time led to an array of conflicting myths and theories. The outdoor drama makes no determination as to who killed Laura Foster: It’s written and presented in such a way that audience members draw their own conclusions.
When the show ends, the ticket-buying “jury” is polled while exiting. Was Dula indeed guilty? The verdict has gone both ways.
“Tom Dooley: A Wilkes County Legend” is staged July 23-25, 30-31 and Aug. 1 at Wilkesboro’s Fort Hamby Park. Admission: $15; $12 for students (any age with ID) and 55 and older. $5 discount for residents of these counties: Iredell (Thursdays), Union (Fridays) and Mecklenburg, Gaston and Cabarrus (Saturdays). Tickets/details: www.tomdooleync.com.
Directions: Interstate 77 North to Exit 73-B; U.S. 421 west through Wilkesboro to U.S. 421 Business/N.C. 16; turn left at Recreation Road.