Arts Performing Arts

Buncombe Chautauqua: The Power of Words

Maya Angelou played by Becky Stone. Photo by Amelia Fletcher

Some legendary figures of the past speak again when the Chautauqua June Festival, The Power of Words, is held Monday through Thursday, June 19–22, at A-B Tech Community College’s Ferguson Auditorium. Performances are at 7 p.m. and feature portrayals of Maya Angelou (June 19), Abraham Lincoln (June 20), Cesar Chavez (June 21) and Walter Cronkite (June 22).

The Chautauqua series began in Greenville, SC in 1999; the Buncombe Chautauqua was established a year later. The format is based on cultural tent shows that traveled around the country in the early 20th century.

“There is a loose theme each year,” says Ed Sheary of the Buncombe committee, “and the characters are selected to provide a cross-section of historical eras, ethnicity and gender.” The Greenville organization plans yearly programs and the Buncombe and Spartanburg groups follow its lead.

“The Asheville programs are known among the Chautauqua performers for the best discussions,” Sheary says. “Our audiences are part of the show.”

For the shows, costumed historical interpreters bring characters to life through monologue. Audiences are then encouraged to question the character, with performers providing authentic replies based on their own historical research. At show’s end, the interpreter steps out of character to discuss and answer questions from a critical, modern perspective.

Interpreters for this year’s show are Becky Stone of Asheville as Maya Angelou; George Frein, who first brought Chautauqua to Asheville, as Abraham Lincoln; Fred Blanco, in his first Asheville appearance, as Cesar Chavez; and longtime Chautauqua favorite Larry Bounds as Walter Cronkite.

For those who want to prepare for this learning experience, the website provides a wealth of information on featured characters including background information and suggested biographies. Recommended books are available at all Buncombe County libraries and many audience members come prepared by having read up on the characters.

“There is a big overlap between our audience and the attendees at the Osher Lifelong Learning Center at UNCA,” Sheary says, but adds that the series is suitable for those middle-school-aged and up.

The Buncombe County library system sponsored the Asheville series for its first 15 years. Since 2015, a group of a dozen or so Chautauqua volunteers has kept the series going. “The 2016 series was the best attended ever,” says Sheary, “averaging between 300 and 500 people for each of the four nights.”

The Buncombe Chautauqua Committee presents Chautauqua 2017 with support from Greenville Chautauqua, several Friends of the Library groups, community organizations, local businesses and individuals.

Tickets are $5 per show or $15 for all four shows and are only available at the door. A-B Tech is located at 340 Victoria Road in Asheville. Ample free parking is available. To learn more, visit

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