The Burn Vote: A Musical Storytelling Event by River and Rail Theatre Company

Woman Suffrage Memorial in Market Sqaure, April 2024

2020 marked an important milestone in our nation’s history, and it was anchored here in East TN. That milestone was the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. The Woman Suffrage movement had been going on for 72 years before the amendment was passed. Something changed in 1920. Harry Burn, the youngest-ever member of the State Legislature of Tennessee, received a letter from his mother, changed his vote and subsequently changed the course of history.

Now, you can see the story vividly come to life through music, art, and theatre in The Burn Vote, a world-premier suffrage musical produced by River and Rail Theatre Company. River and Rail is a nonprofit theatre company committed to keeping talent in Knoxville by providing a quality company for actors to access, amongst other ideals. Since the pandemic, R&R has paid over a half million dollars to UT graduates to do theatre. Joshua Peterson, founder and artistic director, says employing artists is the best thing they do. He is proud of the company’s ability to do this. He wants to see that legacy continue and grow.

The Burn Vote, River and Rail Theatre Company, April 2024 (photo by David Johnson)

Before the Centennial, theatre and history enthusiast, Liz Stowers brought a book by Chris Cragin-Day to River and Rail artistic director Joshua Peterson. Together, they decided to create something from the book, ultimately landing on a musical, with the music and lyrics created by Don and Lori Chaffer and choreography by Casey Sams.

The Burn Vote, Liz Stowers leads conversation at The East TN History Center, April 2024
The Burn Vote, Conversation at the East TN History Center, April 2024

By the fall of 2019, music and lyrics were written, and the group had traveled to Niota, TN, where Burn was from and still has descendants living, to present the first iteration of the musical. They went to Houston, where the Burn Vote was selected for a new works stage reading festival. Through that process, director Amelia Peterson tells me they found the need for a new song for the climax of the movie with Burn’s mother Febb and made some tweaks to the ending of the production. As with many things in 2020, the production was put on hold.

The Burn Vote, River and Rail Theatre Company, April 2024 (photo by David Johnson)

Amelia tells me, “History is a great teacher. We have seen a gradual shift in women’s rights, and it is important for us to stay aware of the journey it took women to get where we are now. It took 72 years to get the right to vote.”

Fast-forward to 2024, and the rest of us get to reap the benefits of their hard work and patience in telling this story in this way through theatre and music. The show opens on April 25th at Old City Performing Arts Center and runs through May 12th. The cast is Katy Wolfe, Robert Parker Jenkins, Amara Pappas, Denise Blank, John Guerrasio, Karen Nickell, Emma Tate, Celeste Pelletier, Ella Trisler, and Olivia Squires.

The Burn Vote, River and Rail Theatre Company, April 2024
The Burn Vote, River and Rail Theatre Company, April 2024 (photo by David Johnson)

Amelia hopes the community takes away a little something from the musical. “Of all the things to change Burn’s vote, it was a note from his mother. It wasn’t the brutal beatings of women who advocated for rights or the protests and rallies. It was his mother’s influence. We all have the ability to influence someone in our own lives. We have influence, power and the capacity to shift changes. The little things add up, and they matter.” She hopes that in this time of political turmoil, we will all use the power and capacity to influence those in each of our own circles for positive change, just like Febb Burn did.

On Saturday, April 27th and Sunday, April 28th, there will be talks after the production to enhance the experience. The Burn family will be present on Saturday, and on Sunday, the Knoxville Women’s Suffrage Coalition will be present.

To become a River and Rail Theatre Co. supporter, you can become a member and continue to support the arts in Knoxville.

Get your tickets HERE!

The Burn Vote, River and Rail Theatre, April 2024

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