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Black Box Arts play honors life of famous local poet

By Staff | May 4, 2018

Fairies flitted across Black Box Arts Center’s stage as Danske Dandridge, played by Ardyth Gilbertson, clasped hands with them and danced to a lilting song based on her poem, “The Fairy Camp.”

The famous Shepherdstown poet (1854-1914) consistently broke societal stereotypes of the day, clearly expressed through her letters and poetry, which playwright, director and narrator Jim Surkamp selected and compiled into Immortal Essence: The Life and Writing of Danske Dandridge.

“Dandridge has a ‘Midsummer Night’s’ feel to her poetry, which gets very personal in the second act,” Surkamp said. “She’s so alive, you can feel it in the play. She reminds you of how little we do with words now.”

Performed this past weekend, the play’s proceeds were donated to the Black Box Arts Center and the West Virginia Recovery Coach Academy.

Sisters Maddie Lowe, 11, and Sophia Lowe, 9, portrayed the fairies and elves dancing with Gilbertson during the play’s interwoven musical selections from Terry Tucker’s album, “A Lantern in a Poet’s Garden,” which put music to Dandridge’s poetry.

In Act I, the literary selections started when Dandridge, who emigrated from Denmark, was young, progressing through her father’s death, the Civil War, planting her garden with 100 plant varieties, her courtship and marriage to Adam Stephen Dandridge Jr. and the death of their 16-year-old son, Stevie.

Progressing into Act II after a brief intermission, the poetry reflected the toll life was taking on Dandridge, as she expressed her frustrations with her marriage, being isolated on a farm and not having the money to travel or entertain guests. Dandridge also spoke about the loss of her young daughter Totsie, dwelling in verse on the strength of her daughter’s trust in God.

To help the audience visualize the lapse of time and change of emotion, Gilbertson alternated between three sets-an office space, a rocking chair and a woodland sanctuary, surrounded by fresh flowers and plants.

Gilbertson portrayed her moments of mourning by donning a black shawl, and reflected the aging of the poet through her costume change between acts, from a lively navy-blue-and-white-striped and polka-dotted outfit, to a deep red blouse and black velvet skirt.

Charming the audience with her portrayal of the poet, Gilbertson’s most moving scene was at the end of Act I, as she broke down emotionally while reflecting on Stevie’s death.

“When you dig deep enough into history, you find amazing writing everywhere,” Surkamp said. “You can’t find anything like it today, and it takes some very surprising turns.”

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/DanskeDandridge/.