When Michael Barnett was invited to join the board of directors of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area’s Friends group in 2008, he wasted no time immersing himself in the park’s rich history.
That same year, he also landed his first role in the park’s annual outdoor drama, “Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals,” playing Preacher Matthew Talbott, a miller who gave up his home place for the construction of Fort Watauga in 1776.
“There have been times I have sat down by the fort and wondered what is must have been like in the 1770s on the frontier, knowing that your survival could be threatened by so many factors,” Barnett said. “Powerful and successful British officers such as Tarleton and Ferguson, or Cherokee warriors trying to preserve their way of life were all threats to the new settlers and their families.
“How they must have loved the pursuit they held so dear to their hearts; establishing a new nation with unlimited bounds and a host of freedoms. It is really incredible when you reflect on it.”
When Sycamore Shoals raises the curtains Thursday on this year’s 35th season of Tennessee’s Official Outdoor Drama, audiences will see Barnett, now President of the Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, in the role of Chester.
Chester isn’t a specific person, bur rather a character who represents the patriots of all wars — those men and women who have given all for the love of their country.
“He would have been a patriot in the true sense of the word,” Barnett said of Chester. “Although he was a grandfather, he was still willing to sacrifice his life and possessions in the pursuit of liberty and freedom. Chester exemplifies the mental fortitude of so many people during the late 18th century.
“In addition, Chester reminds us to be everything we can possibly be, to do good things, and always pursue our dreams. Here, at Sycamore Shoals, people of many cultures came together and worked together, setting the foundation for the subsequent independence of our country from Great Britain.”
As “Liberty!” opens, it is the year 1780, just prior to the Muster of the Overmountain Men to Kings Mountain, and the American Revolution is going full bore. Chester, now up in years, is reflecting on previous wars in his lifetime as his friends in the Watauga Settlement prepare to head out in search of British Major Patrick Ferguson. Then, in a flash, audiences are taken back in time to the early 1770s, when the real story begins.
Barnett said that in the future, he hopes Friends of Sycamore Shoals will make it possible for portions of the drama to be presented to regional schools and community organizations, reaching out to the young people who will one day be charged with protecting historic places such as Sycamore Shoals.
“When we took ‘Liberty!’ to Nashville several years ago, we performed for several thousand school children at the Bicentennial Capital Mall State Park,” he said. “It was just wonderful — no, it was amazing. I could never have imagined what a huge impact our visit may have made on the many folks who came to see our show.
“Sycamore Shoals is where liberty began — a new settlement outside the 13 original British colonies where community leaders had great dreams that ultimately became reality. I believe that everything we hold true today has its roots in the soil of Sycamore Shoals.”
Performances of “Liberty!” will be held at 7:30 p.m., July 11-13, 18-20 and 25-27 in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton.
Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for students; children 5 and younger are admitted free.
A dinner theatre option is also available. For reservations or more information, call the park at (423) 543-5808.
“Liberty!” is sponsored by Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area, 11Connects — WJHL TV, the Tennessee National Guard, Big John’s Closeouts, LeBleu, A to Z Rentals and Holston Gas.