‘Orange Light’ Reveals The Cost Of Cheap Chicken In North Carolina

Jan 31, 2020

From the production of 'Orange Light,' a new play by Howard L. Craft based on the 1991 chicken processing plant fire in Hamlet, NC. Actors are (L-R) Lakeisha Coffey, Carly P. Jones and Marcia Edmundson.
Credit Alex Maness

In 1991 a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina caught on fire, killing 25 people and injuring 55 others. The Imperial Food Products plant fire is one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history — and now the subject of a new play.

Bulldog Ensemble Theater is the home of “Orange Light,” a new fictional play inspired by the 1991 tragedy by poet and playwright Howard L. Craft. The production features music — but is not a musical — movement, drama and an all-female cast. Seven actresses portray 20 different roles on stage.

Craft commissioned recording artist and singer/songwriter Rissi Palmer to create original songs for “Orange Light.” Host Frank Stasio learns more about this production in a conversation with Craft, Palmer, and two featured actresses: Carly Prentis Jones and Lakeisha Coffey. These artists talk about the collaborative effort behind this production and about why this nearly 30-year-old tragedy is still very relevant today. “Orange Light” will be on stage at The Fruit in Durham through Sunday, Feb. 16.

Interview Highlights

Palmer on creating the music for “Orange Light”:

Music is math. It's universal. It can touch things and people in a way that the spoken word just doesn't quite — can't hit it. And I wanted to try to touch that. - Howard L. Craft

It was easy in the sense that the beautiful words — the groundwork — had already been laid. And so really all I was doing was going in and editing, and maybe switching words — because some words are hard to sing or whatever — and putting it into song form, adding melody and doing music. … I wanted to keep the integrity, and this is where the hard part came in, because I wanted to keep the integrity of what Howard wrote and what the scene was about and make sure that context stays in the song. And also not inserting so much of myself into it because usually when I write, I'm writing for Rissi.

Coffey on the difference between “Orange Light” and the 2017 version of this play:

A lot more relationships are present in this iteration, so that you see that these people that were working in these plants were real people. They did have real relationships, and there was real loss across the board.

What Craft wants the audience to take away from this production:

This was not a one-off … We're all complicit because we don't think about what happens with regards to why we're able to buy this meat at such a cheap price, or why we're able to get these goods at such a cheap price. And our ignorance — willful ignorance of that fact allows things like this to happen.

I love being a part of telling stories that are to create change, to give a voice to the voiceless. And that is exactly what Howard does through this play. - Carly Prentis Jones