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Actress Barbara Bates Smith to perform Ivy Rowe for 25th year

Having taken the stage over 700 times for her one-woman show, veteran actress Barbara Bates Smith still describes every performance as magical. 

Her production, “Ivy Rowe,” paints a picture of 20th century revivals, mine disasters, rural electrification, the Great Depression and three wars, as told from the perspective of Ivy — an elderly yet feisty mountain woman.

Partnering with the Carrboro ArtsCenter,  Smith will perform her piece yet again for a Friday and Saturday performance honoring the show’s 25th year of production.

“What people seem to love about (Ivy) is her sensuous nature and flair for storytelling,” Smith said. “She brings a character to identify with, fall in love with and that’s just entertaining.”

With the help of co-writer Mark Hunter,  Smith first adapted the one-woman performance from the book “Fair and Tender Ladies” by author Lee Smith.

Barbara Bates Smith said the writing process was a long ordeal, but also something she felt compelled to complete.

“I read (Lee Smith's) book, and it had such an overwhelming effect on me that I felt I had to do it, even on a street corner if necessary,” she said. “This now being the 25th year of performing it, I’m taking it back to some of the places it played years ago.”

Since the debut of “Ivy Rowe” in 1989, Barbara Bates Smith has performed the play in rural and urban areas across the country, netting rave reviews from The New York Times, Variety and The Village Voice.

Her upcoming performance in Carrboro has already generated great excitement in the local artistic community.

“She’s just a ball of energy and determination,” said Art Menius, executive director of the ArtsCenter. “In retrospect, I can’t think of anyone else who could ever play Ivy Rowe.”

Menius said the longstanding popularity of the show speaks to Barbara Bates Smith’s talent as an actress, as well as the show’s ability to have a lasting emotional impact on its audience.

“Twenty-five years later, people still respond to, and love this work of art,” he said. “I think that’s what artists dream of — making something that appeals to many different people across different generations.”

Though “Ivy Rowe” has become an iconic performance in the last 25 years, when Barbara Bates Smith approached Lee Smith about adapting her book, Lee Smith said she couldn’t imagine how it could be done.

“I thought she was just crazy because the book is all about writing,” Lee Smith said. “It’s written in the form of letters, so I couldn’t figure out she’d do it, but she immediately overcame my doubts.”

Since then, Lee Smith has become close friends with Barbara Bates Smith, and has attended many of her performances around the country. She said Barbara Bates Smith’s adaptation of her original novel has given a new life and journey to Ivy’s character.

“Barbara herself is a whole lot like the character,” Lee Smith said. “Ivy is very much her own women in a time when it was hard to be your old women. Barbara is the same way, she’s just a powerhouse.”

Barbara Bates Smith said she shares Lee Smith’s sentiment about being a similar person to Ivy, and that she actually moved to North Carolina because she was doing the show so frequently.

“Everyone kept teasing me about wanting to become Ivy Rowe,” she said. “And I think in some respect that might have been true.”

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