The Bulldog Ensemble Theater production of Howard Craft’s Orange Light delivers not only an emotional tribute to the people who perished in the 1991 Imperial Foods fire in Hamlet, North Carolina but also a piercing indictment of how the aftermath was handled by those who had the power to affect change.
Using the tragic incident that shook a small town as the starting point, Craft constructs his narrative around five fictional women who are composite representations of those who worked at the chicken processing plant. Of the 25 people who lost their lives that day because the factory doors were locked from the outside, 18 were women, most of them single mothers.
Powerful performances abound from this all-female cast of seven who cycle through almost two dozen different roles. The focus is on the relationships that bind these people together in both positive and negative ways. Director Joseph Megel approaches the emotional intensity of this production with an ideal amount of restraint, allowing the pain, anger, and righteous indignation of the characters to rise to the surface organically.
Lakeisha Coffey as Wilma, one of the survivors of that fateful day, fiercely conveys the frustrations of being a single mother who has to work an exploitative low-wage job to feed her family.
Kri Schafer captures the struggles of Jenny, a character masking vulnerability with anger, a fury that is further fueled from feeling trapped to provide for her infant daughter. Carly P. Jones also delivers a heartbreaking performance as Wilma’s best friend, Laverne. And although not a musical, both Jones and Schafer are impressive vocally in their poignant, soulful solo numbers.
Elisabeth Lewis Corley offers nuanced portrayals of several problematic figures who are trying to rationalize their behavior in the aftermath. Marcia Edmundson brings a light comedic touch to Lenny, the not-so-competent plant mechanic, and other male characters, but refrains from mocking them. And Aurelia Belfield brings the right mix of defiant independence to Quisha, Jenny’s best friend, as well as competently executes a number of other cameo roles.
While a number of white southern men, particularly the owner’s son and the defense attorney, manipulated the system in ways that both caused the tragedy and compounded it, Abbey Toot’s rendition of these characters leans a bit into the stereotypes. Stage manager Jessica Flemming makes a brief appearance, offering a heartfelt testimony of the impact on the children.
What makes the story-telling particularly effective throughout is the weaving of a film-like documentary style into theatrical form to emphasize the impact of this tragic event on the community. At its heart, Craft’s play compels audiences to question the cost of cheap food as well as a system that fails to preserve basic human dignity.