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'A Life Done Right' - Erk Russell play begins Friday at Emma Kelly Theater
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Adrain (CQ) Cunningham portrays former Georgia Southern quarterback Tracy Ham in the opening scene of "A Life Done Right: The Living Legacy of Erk Russell" during a dress rehearsal at the Emma Kelly Theater Wednesday. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    Almost 20 years after retiring as head football coach of the Georgia Southern Eagles and two years after his death, Erk Russell still casts a long shadow in Statesboro, Bulloch County and Georgia.
    A new play, "A Life Done Right: The Living Legacy of Erk Russell" focuses on the life of the legend. It opens tonight in the Emma Kelly Theater.
    The performance features area actors portraying people whose lives were affected by Russell, who died in Sept. 2006 at 80.
    The idea started with Tim Chapman, executive director of the Averitt Center for the Arts, who recruited director and Georgia Southern professor Rebecca Kennerly and playwright (and former Statesboro Herald sports editor) Scott Garner.
    "It's looking really good. We're so excited," said Kennerly.
    The play combines video presentations about Russell's life with oral histories presented from actors.
    "The oral histories are the primary focus," Kennerly said. Transitions also feature actors and actresses playing fictional characters like professors and students at Georgia Southern College in the 1980s.
    "They introduce a video," she said. "It is in a very select and specific timing between acts, and it is always Erk speaking for himself."
    Russell appears only in archival footage — though his presence is always felt on stage, there's no one who could step into his shoes.
    "The most daunting thing was who do you interview, how do you appraoch it, what part of the story do you tell, how much of it can you tell," Garner said.
    The play mostly focuses on Russell's building of a nonexistent Georgia Southern football program into a national championship-winning powerhouse in just a few years.
    "It goes through the '89 championship," Kennerly said. "It also travels back and forth in time, because people are telling their memories in the present, and how Erk affected their lives."
    The oral history approach works well for the play, Garner added.
    Garner said he's proud of his contribution to the play.
    "It most defines the excitement of early Georgia Southern football," he said.
    There are 19 people in the cast. Sixteen present oral interviews, and the remainder are fictional characters.
    One challenge the actors face is that some of the people they'll be portraying will be sitting in the audience while they perform.
    "It's definitely a new experience for them," Kennerly said.
    The actors are prepared, though — some of them conducted interviews with their subjects themselves, and several of the people highlighted in the play met with actors during production.
    "They all met each other to discuss the part and implicitly get permission to do this," Kennerly said. "That's part of the collaborative process , to always keep the person we interviewed as part of the process."
    That collaboration brought out new Erk stories, some corrections, and a lot of goodwill, she added.
    The production of the play has been an organic process, due to the extensive interviews.
    "I think the surprising thing is how all the stories, when you put it together, is so right," Kennerly said.
    Garner spent several years as an award-winning sports writer, and knew Russell.
    "Here's a guy that essentially provided an entire community with a moral compass," he said. "It was a simple, old-fashioned, straightforward moral compass that broke down to two words: 'do right.'"
    Russell's rules all boiled down to those two words — Garner said Russell could tell off-color jokes, enjoyed a beer and was a "man's man," but was also a strong, upright moral figure for Statesboro, Athens and beyond.
    "He has that much influence because of this one way he approached doing everything," Garner said.
    The other thing Garner takes from the play is Russell's enduring legacy.
    "He coached his last game in 1989, and he's still such a revered figure, almost 20 years later," he said.
    As someone relatively new to Statesboro — she moved to the area in 2002 — Kennerly learned a lot about Russell in the process of "A Life Done Right's" production.
    "I don't know much about football, although I go to games," Kennerly said.
    She didn't have an exhaustive command of Russell's history, but knew a lot about him through projects by students in her classes.
    "My students taught me about Erk Russell first," she said.
    Coming away from the process, Kennerly sees Erk as an incredible character and compassionate person.
    "I feel more a part of this place because I took part in the storytelling," she said.
    "I really do understand from an organic level how athletics and academics work together to make a university, and how this town and this university in particular are special. It's a hell of a story."
    "A Life Done Right: The Living Legacy of Erk Russell" premieres to the public at the Emma Kelly Theater tonight at 7:30 p.m. Other performances are Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults and $8 for youth.
    The play will open at Georgia Southern University's Black Box Theater on Friday, Sept. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Other performances are planned at that venue for Saturday, Sept. 6 at noon and Sunday, Sept. 7 at 2 p.m.
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