New play, with music, celebrates Scopes trial in Dayton

New play, with music, celebrates Scopes trial in Dayton

July 15th, 2014 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Bobby Taylor is "The Storyteller," George Miller is William Jennings Bryan and Rick Dye is Clarence Darrow in "Front Page News."

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


• What: Scopes Trial Play & Festival

• Where: Rhea County Courthouse, 1475 Market St., Dayton, Tenn.

• When: 5-8 p.m. Friday, play is at 7:30 p.m.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, play is 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; 1-8 p.m. Sunday, play is at 2:30 p.m.

• Admission: $12, $18, $24

• Online:,

Jim Crabtree and the staff at Cumberland County Playhouse will be lending their expertise at telling dramatic stories, sometimes through song, to this year's Scopes Trial Play.

"I've always been interested in this story, so I am excited to be involved," Crabtree says.

The festival portion of the weekend takes place outside the Rhea County Courthouse; the actual trial took place inside the courthouse in 1925. The festival will feature live music, including special guests Benny Williams and two descendents of the legendary Louvin Brothers, Ira's daughter Kathy and grandson Jacob. There will also be food, antique tractors and a vintage car show.

The play and festival were cancelled two years ago between illnesses and unforeseen scheduling issues with some of the cast just weeks prior to the event. Because that year's play featured a new play about the trial, "Front Page News" written by Deborah DeGeorge Harbin, replacing the actors was not feasible.

At the time, Anna Tromanhauser, executive director with MainStreet Dayton, which organizes the play and festival, said there were "too many holes to fill" in the production and, since the play's revenue is an essential "cornerstone of the festival," without it the entire festival had to be canceled.

The new production was presented last year and was popular with fans, according to Tromhauser. And when last year's director got a new job out of state, event officials reached out to Crabtree for recommendations on a new director, and he offered himself.

"He has worked with the author and they've added some music while keeping the key elements of the script, which was great," she says. "I think it has pumped some new energy into it and made it even more entertaining."

Scopes Monkey Trial Judge John F. Raulston of Winchester, Tenn., seated at center, holds the verdict.

Scopes Monkey Trial Judge John F. Raulston of...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Rhea County resident Tom Morgan, who is coordinating the outdoor festival, believes Crabtree can improve the play and festival via his skills at presenting theater, and also attract new patrons thanks to the extensive mailing list for the Cumberland County Playhouse.

"It's the same play we've presented, but I've seen Jim in action a couple of times this week, and it is so much more dramatic and dynamic that I think people will really enjoy it."

The event is centered around the famous State of Tennessee vs. John Scopes trial that took place from July 10 through 21, 1925. Scopes was on trial for violating the Tennessee Butler Act by teaching evolution to students at Rhea County High School. The trial drew journalists and attention from around the world to Dayton and was later made into "Inherit the Wind," a 1955 Broadway play and a 1960 movie.

The trial was the result of efforts to test a new state law that prohibited teaching anything that "denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals," according to the bill introduced by Tenn. Rep. John Washington Butler, a Democrat.

The Scopes trial also featured two of the country's most celebrated figures in William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist and lawyer who represented the state, and Clarence Seward Darrow, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union who was urged by journalist H.L. Menchen to represent Scopes at no charge.

It was all orchestrated by Dayton businessmen who had learned that the ACLU was looking for a Tennessee teacher willing to test the new law. City merchants saw the trial as a way to bring people, and money, to Dayton.


• Williams Jennings Bryan died on July 26, 1925, five days after the trial; he spent those days preparing a 15,000-word summary, speaking to groups and touring the Dayton area, looking for a place to build a school. He died in his sleep a few hours after delivering the morning prayer at First Southern Methodist Church in Dayton. Bryan College, named after him, was founded in 1930.

• Clarence Darrow retired to write, lecture and travel after the trial. He died in 1938.

• John Scopes turned down an offer to return to his teaching and coaching job at Rhea County High School and instead went to the University of Chicago graduate school, eventually working for an oil company in Venezuela and a gas company in Louisiana. He died in 1970.


It was a essentially a trial pitting Darwinian theory against biblical theology, academic freedom versus that of the students, government versus parents and constitutional rights of speech, establishment of religion and personal liberty.

Scopes was found guilty by the jury, which deliberated for about nine minutes, and fined $100.

For Crabtree, the trial also was about the modern world encroaching on a community that was resisting it, and a community feeling disrespected for wanting to hold to its beliefs.

"We see that in other parts of the world today," he says.

Crabtree, who has produced the play "Inherit the Wind" many times at Cumberland County Playhouse, says he didn't fully appreciate the liberties and misrepresentations Hollywood and Broadway took in telling the story in the film and stage adaptations of "Inherit the Wind."

"The people of Dayton are made to look like rubes, and they feel that to this day," he says.

By adding music, some of it from traditional church music and some of it composed by Crabtree and Grammy-nominated artist Bobby Taylor, who plays "The Storyteller" in the play, Crabtree says those community traditions are honored.

"It's part of who they are," he says.

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.