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Published: Thursday, 7/17/2003

Hancock County controversy surprises playwright

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY - When Jim Toth created Sunshine Hickfield and Royboy McCoy, the Findlay playwright and director thought he was bringing to life lovable characters from the Appalachian region.

Instead, his use of “hillbillies” in an upcoming mystery dinner theater has angered some area residents and caused the Hancock County Agency on Aging to distance itself from the production.

The annual murder mystery production will go on, but this year the money it makes won't be going to the agency that provides programs and services for the elderly.

“It's been quite a storm down here that I've caused, apparently,” Mr. Toth said. “I was a little upset because [the agency on aging] has always been my charity of choice.”

For eight years, Mr. Toth has drafted a murder mystery to benefit the local organization. But this year's production, titled Murder on Moonshine Mountain, will benefit new charities after the agency's executive director heard from residents upset by what they felt was the ridiculing of the Appalachian culture.

The show centers around two families in Tennessee, each member a suspect in the murder of a newcomer in town. At the end of the show, during which dinner is served, the audience member who answers the most questions based on clues presented during the play given to them and finally points out the murderer takes home a grand prize.

Resident Beth Hendricks said she felt compelled to express her discontent about how the characters in the play were depicted. A native of West Virginia, Ms. Hendricks said she was offended by a local write-up inviting play-goers to dress in “hillbilly ware,” a form of dress she assumed, based on an accompanying photo, meant a half-tucked in shirt and no shoes.

“It was never my intent to get it canceled,” Ms. Hendricks said of the play. “I do have a sense of humor, but everyone has a breaking point and mine came last week. Perpetuating stereotypes is not entertainment.”

Maile Doyle, director of the Volunteer Center at the United Way of Hancock County, not only supported the agency on aging's decision not to distance itself support the play,but decided to back out of the play herself.

Ms. Doyle, who often acts in the community event, said she decided to not participate after she heard of the complaints.

“We firmly believe it is our mission and our goal to lift people up. If even one person doesn't feel uplifted, we need to take that into consideration,” she said. “We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, but people know who I am and what I represent. I needed to do what I needed to do.”

Although there were some complaints, executive director Jim Smarkel said the agency on aging also heard from people worried that the show was canceled. He admitted there is support for the annual event in the community but said the agency needed to yank its sponsorship to retain credibility.

“Our agency exists to help people,” he said. “When you think about it from that standpoint, if you're there to help people then you can't go out at night and make fun of them.”

Spectators pay $30 a ticket, giving Mr. Toth the opportunity to donate as much as $10,000 to a local organization. This year, he will split the proceeds between the Julien A. Faisant Center Adult Day Services and the Bridge Home Health & Hospice.

Beverly Rarey, the adult center's program director, said she knows nothing of the controversy between ial ending of the production and with the agency on aging.

She said she has seen some of Mr. Toth's productions in the past and has always enjoyed them.

As for accepting money from the proceeds, Ms. Rarey said she is more than happy to be the play's beneficiary.

Mr. Toth said he holds no grudges against the agency on aging, which also pulled its financial support of the play, and said he plans to host another event next year.

“Every year, at the end of the show, we pick a topic and I write the next year's script,” said Mr. Toth, who thanked Fort Findlay Play House which picked up the cost of costumes and advertising. “Never, in all the years I've been writing these, have I seen this reaction.”

The show will be performed at the Findlay Elks Lodge on the weekends of July 25 and 26 and Aug. 1 and 2.



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