Posted April 7, 2014 by in Awesome Books

From Page to Stage: A Case Study of A Yellow Watermelon

You are sitting in a playhouse waiting for the lights to go down and the curtain to go up on a stage adaptation of a favorite book. You wait in anticipation to see if the show is going to measure up to your expectations. But have you ever thought about all that must take place for a literary work to go from page to stage? Being an avid reader and having a theater background, I have often wondered about the process of transforming a novel into a play production. Recently, I learned more about the challenges and the fun of this type of work when playwright and director Cathi Gunter adapted author Ted Dunagan’s popular young adult fiction book A Yellow Watermelon into a full-length show.

Ted Dunagan, author of A Yellow Watermelon. Picture courtesy of NewSouth Books.

Ted Dunagan, author of A Yellow Watermelon. Picture courtesy of NewSouth Books.

Dunagan’s novel A Yellow Watermelon was released through NewSouth Books in 2009, and since that time has been accepted as an Accelerated Reader book, was featured in the inaugural Georgia Center for the Book list of works that every young Georgian should read, and won Dunagan his first of three Georgia Author of the Year for Young Adult Fiction Awards. The book has become a favorite with YA readers throughout the South.

Born in Coffeeville, Alabama, Dunagan selected his hometown as the setting of his work, which features two boys named Ted and Poudlum. Ted is white, and Poudlum is black. In the 1940s Deep South, their friendship is an unconventional one, but they are able to see past race and develop a true and lasting camaraderie. Being young boys, they often find themselves getting into trouble, but by working as a team, they manage to overcome the obstacles they encounter. Ted and Poudlum’s adventures have now spanned four works: A Yellow Watermelon, Secret of the Satilfa, Trouble on the Tombigbee, and The Salvation of Miss Lucretia, which will be released this spring.

Cathi Gunter, playwright and director of the play version of A Yellow Watermelon. Picture courtesy of Gunter.

Cathi Gunter, playwright and director of the play version of A Yellow Watermelon. Picture courtesy of Gunter.

Due in part to Dunagan’s connection to Coffeeville and the success of his series, the book became an obvious choice as one that would draw a crowd if adapted into a play. That’s where Cathi Gunter came in. Gunter, who works as a psychotherapist at Grove Hill Hospital in Alabama, has directed before and is also a writer of several murder mystery productions that have been staged in Clarke County. She has known Dunagan for several years, but the idea for adapting his novel came about in an unexpected way. According to Gunter, “The town of Coffeeville had several businesses close, and the school was shut down and all the kids bused to other county schools. While at work one day, I was talking to a co-worker who lives in Coffeeville, and she asked me to do one of my murder mysteries as a fundraiser for them to help restore the old school. The idea was born to use Coffeeville’s greatest resource, Ted, to bring some much needed recognition not only to him but also to Coffeeville.”

Once the idea was formulated, Gunter worked with NewSouth Books and the town of Coffeeville to put the plan in action. First, Gunter handwrote the adaption of the play in March 2013, but by July of that year, it was typed and ready to go. Dunagan then read the draft. According to Dunagan, “I read it and made a few suggestions, but Cathi did all the work.” Gunter stated that working with Dunagan was a pleasure. She said, “It felt good for him to trust me with his baby. He was available for anything I needed. He’s a wonderful man and so gifted; I want to be like him when I grow up!”

Going from page to stage meant tackling several obstacles for Gunter. Reworking locales from the book into manageable sets was perhaps the trickiest part. She related, “I tried to stay true to Ted’s story; of course, we could not put a barking dog or a cow on stage, so poetic license was taken there. The story was beautiful and poignant, and it was very important to me for it to remain so. Scenes I felt must stay were all of Ted’s scenes with Jake and Poudlum. The cotton picking scene was tweaked but remained, and the bootlegger scenes were the same, but the interactions with some of the peripheral characters were either culled or shortened. The book in its entirety would have been an almost four-hour play, so there were some scenes we chose to leave out or present in another way to the audience.”

Picture by Jimmy Deas.

Ted and Jake from A Yellow Watermelon. Picture by Barry H. Hendrix, courtesy of Clarke County Democrat newspaper.

Even with all of the pre-planning for the show, Gunter discovered that a few things had to be altered once she was in the rehearsal process. “I did not change much to adapt from finished script to stage. Any changes that I did as director were shot by Ted first. I tried to keep the integrity of the book in its truest form. The most difficult part was having 30 scene changes in nine locations. I built stationary platforms for Jake’s shack and Ted’s house. Some scenes took place in front of the curtain while the stage was set with portable scenery. The church/preaching scene had the actors walking out into the audience to church pews and having Brother Benny Hurd preaching from the stage. Not to high-five myself, but I had to be very creative to keep the scenes moving along at a respectable pace.”

The show premiered on Friday, March 7, to local school students in the Coffeeville area; Gunter said 282 students, teachers, and school staff attended that production. The performance opened to the public on March 8, with 328 in attendance, followed by a matinee on March 9, with about 150 present. Gunter said, “Everyone had great things to say about the actors and the play itself. I dedicated the play to Ted’s mom, Mrs. Alma Dunagan, and we sang her favorite hymn during one of the preaching scenes. Ted was very emotional during the play, and afterwards, the mayor gave him the key to the city and a declaration of Ted Dunagan Day on March 8th. Ted made no suggestions or negative comments; I think he was pleasantly surprised at all the hard work that went into making this a great performance.”

Although the play was Gunter’s first adaptation, and while she admitted that the process was difficult at times, she was thrilled with the results. She stated, “Would I do it again…in a heartbeat!!!!!” She believes that her next adaptation will be Dunagan’s second novel, Secret of the Satilfa, in order to follow the natural progression of the series.

Characters Fred, Ted, Jake, Poudlum with author Ted Dunagan. Picture courtesy of Jimmy Deas.

Characters Fred, Ted, Jake, and  Poudlum with author Ted Dunagan. Picture courtesy of Jimmy Deas.

Having directed plays, I know that most audiences do not realize the time-consuming, backbreaking work that goes into putting on a production. But when all of that work results in packed houses with audiences enjoying every minute of a show, it is worth all the time, the aches, and the pains. Congratulations to Cathi Gunter on successfully taking Ted Dunagan’s A Yellow Watermelon from page to stage.

A Yellow Watermelon (Hardcover)

By (author): Ted M. Dunagan

In rural south Alabama in 1948, whites picked on one side of the cotton field and blacks on the other. In A Yellow Watermelon, twelve-year-old Ted meets Poudlum, a black boy his own age, where the fields meet. Poudlum teaches Ted how to endure the hard work while they bond and go on to integrate the field. Ted learns of evil forces gathering to deprive Poudlum’s family of their property. The two boys encounter danger and suspense while saving Poudlum’s family and discovering a great secret of enlightenment.
List Price: $21.95 USD
New From: $11.00 USD In Stock
Used from: $7.89 USD In Stock

From Page to Stage: A Case Study of A Yellow Watermelon 5.00/5 (100.00%) 3 votes

Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.