ASHEBORO — “You die twice, once when you die and again when people forget your name.”
That quote was from an elderly gentleman who saw the stage version of “Company K: from Asheboro to the Fields of France.” He was moved by the ending of the play when the names were read of all those from Randolph County who have given their lives in combat, from World War I to the present.
“That was one incredible thing,” said Patrick Osteen, who portrays Capt. Ben Dixon, who led Company K into battle on Sept. 29, 1918, giving his own life as the Hindenburg Line was breached, leading to the end of World War I.
The film version of “Company K” will premiere at the Sunset Theatre in Asheboro at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day. Admission is free.
Company K, a National Guard unit based in Asheboro, was part of the 120th Infantry. Casualties were enormous during the charge to open the Hindenburg Line, including a number from Company K.
Dixon, who was wounded during the charge, continued to urge his men forward until a bullet struck him in the head. He was awarded posthumously with the Distinguished Service Cross.
A letter to their mother by Dixon’s twin, Wright, who was serving with a machine gun company of the same regiment, informed her of Ben’s death. The heart-breaking message ends with “He died like a soldier and a brave man should die.”
It’s those letters home to wives and parents that serve as the core of “Company K.” Playwright Barbara Presnell, herself an Asheboro native, said a collection of the letters sent home by her grandfather, Ernest Bunting, helped inspire the script.
“I got into this through Ross Holt,” she said. Holt is director of the Randolph County Library System and had worked with Presnell in previous theatrical events. “He called to see if I’d be interested.”
Osteen, who portrays both Dixon brothers in “Company K,” said the library and the City of Asheboro collaborated with RhinoLeap Productions to commemorate Company K. “It was a herculean task to produce.”
Said Presnell: “I met with RhinoLeap in May and we had to stage it in November. But there was no play. People were skeptical that it could happen. But I got an idea and ran with it. And (Director) Jeremy (Skidmore) did a wonderful job.”
Presnell’s grandfather was a first sergeant with Company K. “The day of his wedding, he heard they were shipping out. He sent a series of very romantic letters to my grandmother.”
Something else inspired Presnell to write the play. Brenda Schleunes, founder and artistic director of the Touring Theatre of North Carolina, had taken a book of Presnell’s poems and turned it into a play. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
Presnell used letters from Company K soldiers to bring out the personalities of the six characters in the play. Each character is a combination of several Company K soldiers, she said.
“It’s an odd stage piece,” Presnell said of “Company K.” “It’s not traditional. There’s a lot of voices telling a story and acting it out.
“One of my favorite parts was the roll call of those who died,” she said. “At the end, it moves to all the war dead from Randolph County, beginning with World War I. It makes the play about more than just World War I, and the cost (of war) to everybody.”
Osteen said that when “Company K” was first performed in 2018, it was supposed to be “a one-off show” with no repeat performances planned. But the show sold out so RhinoLeap performed it again the next year, and again it “was very well received. We did it again this year as a live show, then did a film version in various locations."
“It’s a very powerful experience to do this for family members” of Company K veterans,” Osteen said. “It feels so much a part of our city. It vibrates in town. The stories are important to the community.”
Presnell, who hasn’t seen the film version, said, “I’m excited to see the film and how they’ve done it.”
The event is part of the Friends of the Library Sunset Signature Series. A question-and-answer session with RhinoLeap cast members and Presnell will follow the film.
Sponsoring partners are the City of Asheboro and the Heart of NC Visitors Bureau. For more information, call 800-626-2672 or visit HeartofNorthCarolina.com.