Shakespeare Fest Has Hit: Play About Bear Bryant

The 26 years since legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant died have not dimmed his fame nor the urge for 'Bama fans to revel in his story.

Now a drama about the dirt poor Arkansas farm boy who became a college football icon is coming to the city where he showcased the Crimson Tide and recorded many of his 323 victories.

Officials with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival announced Monday that they will stage the play "Bear Country" from Aug. 6-20 at the Virginia Samford Theatre. The historic theater on Birmingham's southside is just a few miles from Legion Field, where a statue of Bryant stands outside the main entrance.

The play is going on the road to Birmingham after a five-week run at ASF's Octagon Theatre in Montgomery in January and February.

The Montgomery productions, mostly sold out, were so popular they attracted tailgaters, former Crimson Tide team members and theatergoers dressed in their game-day crimson.

Written by ASF's chief operating officer, Michael Vigilant, the play has been a financial bright spot for ASF, which has struggled to fill seats during lean economic times. Earlier this year, it canceled its planned production of the musical "Les Miserables" because of slow ticket sales.

To add a little nostalgia, the Birmingham performances are being sponsored by Coca-Cola and Golden Flake, which also sponsored Bryant's popular Sunday afternoon television shows. The shows, which featured Bryant drinking Coke and eating Golden Flake potato chips while narrating replays of the previous day's game, are recreated in the play.

As he did in Montgomery, veteran ASF actor Rodney Clark will play the adult Bryant. The play takes place on what is supposed to be a retiring Bryant's last day in his Tuscaloosa office. The coach reflects on his life, including how he got his nickname by wrestling a carnival bear. When he retired in 1982, Bryant had won more games than any major college coach in America.

Clark said he was apprehensive about portraying a man who is still beloved by Bama fans. But the audience reaction changed that.

"The show turned into one of the most fun plays I've done in my life," Clark said. "On opening night we had 20 of his former players in the audience and they just loved it."

Clark said the atmosphere during the play's run in Montgomery often resembled a football Saturday outside a stadium, rather than a theater that in recent years has staged high tragedies like "Othello" and "Macbeth."

"We had people tailgating. For a theater to have people tailgating, that's a dream," Clark said.

After Birmingham, Vigilant said ASF hopes to take the play to Tuscaloosa and other locations around Alabama. He said ASF has been getting calls from theaters around the state that want to host the production.

"At ASF, one of our missions is to tell Southern stories. We want to bring this story to more people because we were pleased with the response," Vigilant said.


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