My First Play Will Be Produced Next Year!

I’ve written many legal works (books, articles, student guides, etc.) and two novels (“Imaginary Friend” and “Corbin Milk,” both available on Amazon), and when I was much younger I made stabs at writing plays and musicals, none of which I showed to anyone.  But the first real play I’ve written with the idea of actually getting it performed has just been accepted for a production next year here in Columbus, Ohio.  The play is called “The Turkey Men,” and it has its origin in a true story from the Civil War.  In 2011 I read in the Columbus Dispatch a column by John Switzer.  He's the newspaper's retired Weather Columnist, and he occasionally writes folksy pieces about nature or local events in central Ohio.  I've enjoyed his musings for years, and was very interested when on May 22 of that year he wrote a Memorial Day piece about two graves in Pleasant Cemetery in Madison County.  One is that of a Confederate soldier named Frank Chick who fought under the famous cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest ("be there first with the most"), both of them from Tennessee.  The other is Nicholas Brill, an Ohio native and Union Army soldier who encountered Chick when the latter was a prisoner Brill was guarding at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, during the war.  They were not yet 20 at first meeting, but when the war ended Brill invited Chick to come to his home near Mount Sterling, Ohio, and live with him in his cabin on Deer Creek, where they developed a business raising and selling chickens and turkeys.  The two lived together until Chick died in 1922 and Brill a year later.  Known locally as "the turkey men," they were buried next to each other in an area "separated a little bit from the other graves" (why would that be, do you think?). 

In his column contemplating this interesting history, Switzer speculates that this is "a nice story about how two men who were once sworn enemies came to rest in peace side by side throughout eternity." I immediately sent an email to the address Mr. Switzer conveniently provided at the end of his column.  Here it is:

Mr. Switzer:
I have long enjoyed your splendid columns.
Today's column about the Confederate prisoner and his guard who became lifelong friends and lived together—the "turkey men"—struck a chord with me. You say they "somehow became fast friends," and I may have an explanation for that. I'm an aging gay activist here in Columbus, now retired, and it struck me that there's a good chance these men fell in love and became partners. Is there any hint of that? Were either married? Gay couples know how to hide and have done so for centuries.
My best to you.

Douglas Whaley

Mr. Switzer never replied.  Obviously it hadn't occurred to him that the "turkey men" could have been lifelong gay partners, but that's as likely—even more probable—an explanation as any other.  Considered as a romance it's even a better story than two straight bachelors who just happened to live together for over 50 years.  Perhaps the reason I received no reply is that this possibility embarrassed or offended Mr. Switzer, but I'll never know. 

Chick and Brill’s story stayed with me, and I began musing how things would have been for them if in fact their pairing was a romance lasting 54 years, long enough to have had a Golden Anniversary in a time when gay romances in theory didn’t exist at all.  It occurred to me that in a fictional version of their lives I could change their names and do what I wanted with their basic story as a premise.  Instead of creating another novel I decided it was time to write a play with them as the central conceit.  But what kind of a plot?  And how could I make it into a story with one set and five characters (the supposed best setup for getting one’s play produced over and over again)?

The play would be a romance, obviously, but it should also be funny and there must be some real tension going on to move the plot along.  I’ve always loved ghost stories in fiction, and some of my favorite plays concern ghosts (consider Noel Coward’s terrific comedy “Blithe Spirit).  I turned them into ghosts.

I decided to set my play in 2016 and make the two ex-soldiers, now called Alexander Small (the Yank) and Webster Carter (the Confederate) ghosts still inhabiting their old home on the abandoned turkey farm, and now worried that if they materialize at all, as they used to do, they’ll vanish forever.  But these men have lived through much of gay history and have had wonderful adventures and a great romance.  Their quasi-existence is interrupted by the sudden arrival of three people: a man and a woman dragging a sixteen year old lesbian, entrusted to their care by her parents with the hope that they can “pray away the gay” and turn the girl into a happy heterosexual.  Should Alex and Web get involved even if it means their permanent disappearance after over 150 years?  Of course the answer is yes, and how they make themselves known to the girl and what they do to rescue her drives the plot.

In the fall of 2015 I wrote three pages of the play, and then I put it aside.  It germinated for almost a year and then in the summer of 2016 in a four day period I wrote all of the rest of it, sitting at my computer and typing in a fury.  I finished close to midnight on the fourth day and then wandered into the living room and announced to my husband David Vargo that it was done, and asked him if I could read it to him.  I did this with some trepidation.  David is a professional actor/director and he knows a tremendous amount about theater.  He is the nicest person on the planet when it comes to most things, but when you ask him his opinion about something theatrical he will give you the brutal truth, even if you are his husband and the subject is how you are playing a certain role or, as in this case, the merits of the play you’ve just written.  I expected no less, but wanted his frank opinion.  When I finished reading it to him he was all smiles.  “It’s terrific!” he said.  Of course I was very, very pleased.  Since then David, a graphic designer, has created a poster for possible future productions of “The Turkey Men,” and it is featured at the top of this blog post.

I then started the process of trying to find a company that would produce it.  I talked to a number of local playwrights who are friends, and they read it and made suggestions.  They advised me to join the Dramatists Guild, which gives advice on many important topics, and they also told me how to put my play in the standard format for submission to companies across the country, and made suggestions for changing various facets of the play in structure, dialogue, setting, etc. 

My play ends Act One with a love song that one of the Civil War soldiers sings to the other, and I had to write both the lyrics and the music to that song and get it down with proper musical notation.  I then had two different musical experts add all the proper chords and record a professional guitar version of the song so that I could send it out with the script I submitted to companies across the country. 

A couple of months ago one of the major companies here in Columbus offered to produce the show in their 2019 season!  The company wants to do it because of the local connection to the real story, plus my involvement in gay rights here in the city (I am one of the founders of Stonewall Columbus).  The email containing this offer to produce the show was one of the greatest thrills of my life.  It led to lunch with the artistic director of the company, a definite commitment was made, and plans begun (all of which will be revealed at a later date).  What was once just me typing at the computer now will be an actual event unfolding right in front of me as I sit in the audience, surrounded by a community of friends in a city that I love.  I still can’t quite believe it.

Last year at this time, Memorial Day, David and I hopped in the car and drove down to Mt. Sterling, about 30 miles south of Columbus and found Pleasant Cemetery, where Chick and Brill are buried.  The cemetery is of goodly size, but not huge.  The column in the paper had said they were buried together slightly apart from the other graves, so David and I, cell phones in hand, split up and searched.  He found them shortly afterwards and summoned me to their graves which were decorated with an American flag on Brill’s grave and a Confederate one on Chick’s.  John Switzer’s column from the Columbus Dispatch (enclosed in a plastic case and attached to a post between the graves) told their story for all the visitors to see and learn something about their lives.

Now we’ll see if my play, in its fictional, fantastic, and romantic form, adds a new way to think about what these two men really experienced after they blended their lives from 1865 until the early 1920’s.

Related Posts:

"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012;

"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010;

"Strange Songs, Inc.," September 29, 2010;

“Why Even Believers Should Read My Atheist Thriller ‘Imaginary Friend’,” October 29, 2013;

“Just Published: My Novel “Corbin Milk,” a Thriller Detailing the Adventures of a Gay CIA Agent,” April 18, 2014;


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