Winning play unveils life of ancestor

Kelly Bancroft was determined to learn the truth about the late Bessie Watkins.

Basic facts about her long-forgotten ancestor had been obscured by the mists of time. But it was more than that; Bessie’s short life was a mystery, as if she had been intentionally erased by a dearth of information. All that was certain was that Bessie lived in Mineral Ridge but died in Cleveland in 1910 at age 19.

So Bancroft and her brother, Ken, with the help of the Mineral Ridge Historical Society, dug into records to unearth the story of this young woman whose death was shrouded in cryptic newspaper articles.

The result is Bancroft’s play, “Arriving at Bessie,” which is the winner of the 2013 Voices of the Valley one-act play festival at the Youngstown Playhouse.

Bancroft is an instructor at Youngstown State University, as well as a writer and singer, and has taught creative writing throughout the community. Although she has taught plays before, “Arriving at Bessie” is the first one she has written.

Her long-forgotten ancestor may have been guiding her.

“No one knew her story. [Bessie] hardly left a paper trail. But she called out to me,” said Bancroft, explaining why she felt compelled to piece together the life of her father’s mother’s sister. “I don’t want to give away what was discovered, but there was a cover-up.”

Bancroft said the framework for her play is entirely factual, but she had to use her imagination to create dialog and fill in some blanks.

She first attempted to share Bessie’s life story as a novel or short story. When she learned of the Playhouse’s one-act festival, she decided to give that format a try. It proved to be the best method.

Bancroft uses a cinematic structure for “Arriving at Bessie,” splitting the action between two time periods. While an investigator (Bancroft) tells Bessie’s story in the present, the audience also sees Bessie in 1910.

“Arriving at Bessie” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 2, 3 and 4 in the Playhouse’s Moyer Room black box theater. Tickets are $7; call 330-788-8739 for reservations.

James Canacci is directing the 40-minute play. The cast includes Hannah Gillespie as Bessie; Tracy McQuillan as Bancroft; Noelle Bowles and Joseph Pecchio.

PLAYHOUSE DOMINATES marquee nominations

The Youngstown Playhouse once again dominated the nominations for the Marquee Awards, garnering 63 nods.

The Marquees, which celebrate the best in local theater, are sponsored by the Youngstown Area Community Theater Alliance.

In second place was The Victorian Players with 33 (10 of which were shared with Centaur Stage Productions and J.E. Ballantyne Productions). Rust Belt Theater Company picked up 23 nods; Salem Community Theater, 22; New Castle Playhouse, 20; Stage Left, 20; Oakland Center for the Arts (which pulled out of the theater alliance this season), 16; Main Street Theater’s Crown Theater Productions, 14; Centaur Stage, 12; Carnation City Players, 5; Mahoning County Players, 3; and J.E. Ballantyne Productions, 1.

The winners will be revealed Aug. 17. For a list of nominees in the top categories, search


Two local rib cookers were victorious at last weekend’s Eastwood Rib Festival. Buena Vista Cafe of Warren won best sauce, and Guy’s BBQ of Youngstown won the People’s Choice award. Texas Pit Barbeque won best ribs.

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