West Florida revolt takes center stage

Throughout the years, time travel has been used as a plot device to open the world of history to those who would be otherwise uninterested. So, it is rather fitting that the newest play written by assistant professor of theatre James Winter would use the same tried-and-true technique to capture a rather unknown era of history in “Only in Louisiana: The Not-Quite-True Story of the West Florida Revolt.”

The story’s premise takes place in modern 2010, where high school students Alex and Clarence are in the midst of arguing when a swamp hermit by the name of Old John sends them back in time to 1810. There, they realize they have switched places with the famous leaders of the revolt and are forced to carry out the historical events or else risk altering time forever. Meanwhile, the real Gen. Philemon Thomas and his right-hand man Floyd Barrow find themselves in Alex and Clarence’s Louisiana history class.

The story moves backward and forward in time as events comically play out for Alex and Clarence, (played by Megan Cleveland and Trey Lagan) as they storm the Spanish fort, while Thomas and Barrow (played by Lee Jeansonne and Matt Kozel) give their own personal touch on the students’ history lesson.

The play is the central event for the West Florida Republic Bicentennial. According to Winter, he was approached by Dr. Samuel Hyde, director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies, who commissioned Winter to create a play for the bicentennial.

“Initially I didn’t know what to do,” said Winter. “I’d never written a historical drama. The more I talked to Sam, the more he wanted it to reach a broad audience. He wanted something that was designed to get people interested in the history, but it didn’t have to be a historical reenactment. So that’s when I came up with the idea to do a comedy.”

Winter spent the course of a year and a half working on “Only in Louisiana” by immersing himself in the history of the revolt, reading book after book and watching the documentary “Reluctant Americans: The West Florida Revolt, Completing the Louisiana Purchase,” produced by the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies.

“Only in Louisiana” was committed to bring a theme of extravagance to the stage and ensure a night of quality entertainment for everyone. With a cast of over 20, there are actors constantly changing from students with books to soldiers with rifles.

The set, designed by Steve Schepker, changes quickly with movable platforms, flying scenery and changing slides, all beneath Ellen Lipkos’s lighting design, which captures the colorful beauty and mystery of the Louisiana swamp.

According to Hyde, who served as historian for the play, a theatrical production was the right idea to come up with a new way to bring history alive to an audience who had not been exposed to this area of history.

“It was extraordinary,” said Hyde. “It was way beyond our expectations. The acting was superb, the tech was superb. I simply could not be happier with it.”

After its premiere week, “Only in Louisiana” audience members agree that this is one history lesson that sticks as a well-acted, captivating comedy.

“I thought it was very clever, very entertaining,” said Susan Webre, audience member and Civil War reenactor. “I even learned a little history.”

Audience member Lyndon Williams revealed that Cleveland’s performance of Thomas was his favorite aspect of the play. Williams had also acted in the historical role of Thomas in the 2003 Louisiana Public Broadcasting documentary “Louisiana: A History.”

“She played both roles very well,” said Williams. “She played well as a tomboy and kept her femininity very well.”

“Only in Louisiana” will continue its run on Oct. 5-6 at 7:30 p.m. inside the Vonnie Borden Theatre. Tickets are on sale with general admission at $10, senior citizens and children at $5 and free admission Southeastern students with university ID. Tickets can be reserved by calling 985-549-2115 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.