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Meet Suzanne Doonan

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Suzanne Doonan is nothing short of exuberant when discussing the work she used to do as director of the historic Riverside Cemetery Conservancy, most especially the careful, loving research and writing she did in order to bring to life selected stories for the annual Spring Spirit Stroll and Spirits in October tours; during these tours, groups take a guided walk through the lovely grounds as actors in era-appropriate costumes stand graveside, recounting tales from the lives of the people they’re portraying. It’s a creative and wonderful way to honor real people and local history, and the event is much-beloved by visitors and participants alike. “People used to always come to the cemetery and ask, ‘Who here is famous?’” Doonan says, “And we do have a few of those, like the boxer Young Stribling, but for the spirit tours, most of the people we presented weren’t necessarily famous. That didn’t mean they weren’t fascinating – that’s been a fun, enlightening discovery, for me and hopefully for our tour guests – every life is interesting, complicated, and contradictory in its own way.”

Because of her fine work with the spirit tours, Doonan was approached several years ago by Mercer University’s Townsend School of Music faculty composer Christopher Schmitz, who wanted to compose an opera based on Macon history and found Doonan an ideal choice to write the libretto. Doonan, who was born in Boston and grew up in Birmingham, had studied science and social science at the Mississippi University for Women, going on to earn a Master’s in Counseling; in 1971, she moved to Macon with her then-husband, who’d accepted a teaching job at Mercer. She worked for years as a stay-at-home mother to her four children and, as her kids grew up and became involved in community theater, Doonan caught that bug as well, returning to college in the 90s to earn her Bachelor’s in Theatre from Mercer.

Doonan held several positions that utilized multiple facets of her education, from teaching drama in schools and afterschool programs to working with the Standardized Patient Program, in which people are trained to play the roles of patients with complex medical histories so that med students can gain practice with taking case histories and learning communications skills, at what was then called the Medical Center (now Navicent Health). She was a perfect fit for the job at Riverside Cemetery, for which she was able to write and produce environmental theater pieces like the spirit tours; she was also responsible for fundraising, networking, and increasing public awareness about the cemetery and its attributes and amenities. (An interesting Riverside Cemetery fact gleaned from my conversation with Doonan: in 1887, when the charter for the cemetery was granted, representatives traveled to New York to commission a design from noted landscape architect Calvert Vaux, best known for his work with New York’s Central Park; around that time, the entire concept of burial grounds had been shifting from dour, grim, unadorned graveyards to a more beautiful, public park-esque space with ample flowers and statuary – “The idea of death was evolving from something foreboding and scary into the idea of a peaceful eternal rest,” says Doonan – and both Riverside Cemetery and Rose Hill were developed with that new movement in mind; for a small city like Macon to have not just one but two such spaces is rare and unusual.)

But back to Schmitz asking Doonan to work with him on an opera – despite her wealth of experience and knowledge, she felt intimidated since she’d never written anything meant to be set to music; turns out that Schmitz had never written any music meant to accompany words, so the experience was new and thrilling, with a steep learning curve, for both of them. “I struggled,” Doonan laughs, “but what seemed impossible at the time turned out to be merely difficult.” After Doonan agreed to take on the project, the task of determining the opera’s subject took center stage; Doonan knew of several dark, Southern Gothic-style local stories, but Schmitz wanted to do something more uplifting, something with a heroic protagonist. While poring through archives of the 50-plus people she’d researched for the Riverside Cemetery spirit tours and bouncing ideas off a friend, the perfect subject – Hugh Smalling – appeared.

Hugh Smalling was an adored young man; the youngest of nine children, he was the first to leave home and join the Navy, seeking adventure and exposure to other cultures, during World War II. While deployed, Smalling met an Australian woman, June Thomas, and fell in love – he wrote copious letters home detailing his adventures and newfound romance, but in September of 1943, the USS Nauset, the ship Smalling was traveling aboard, was sunk, and Smalling has been listed as ‘lost’ ever since. “This story is really very operatic,” Doonan says. “It has everything – romance, a shipwreck, mystery, a spiritual connection – immediately we knew it was the one.” The opera features a subplot surrounding an African-American serviceman, Benny, and his experience facing racism after returning home from war; this was inspired by esteemed Macon native Benny Scott, one of the South’s first African-American engineers, who has since passed away, but who Doonan had the pleasure of meeting during her time at Mercer in the 90s.

“Scenes from Hugh Smalling,” which takes place in the Fickling Hall at Mercer University at 7:30 pm on March 28, is a glimpse into this work-in-progress. The show will be performed by 17 Mercer faculty and students, backed by a 14-person orchestra, and conducted semi-staged with minimal props and suggested costumes; the full opera has yet to be completed, and Doonan and Schmitz are looking forward to audience reaction and feedback. “Through writing this, we discovered that we have almost too much material,” Doonan says. “Benny could be the star of his own opera, and the other characters’ stories are all so fascinating – it’ll be great to hear from the audience and see what they’d like to know more about.”

In the meantime, Doonan’s enjoying riding this creative wave; she’s currently focused on “creating more space in my life to do even more writing,” as she says. Her pet project of the moment is another undertaking of historical fiction, based on local lore – she’s keeping the topic close to her chest for now, but is excited to get to work on it and see if it’ll manifest itself as a play or a novel or something else entirely. And she’s full of gratitude for Mercer’s music department for allowing her the pleasure of diving into this project – “Chris was wonderful, of course, and Martha Malone is a fabulous opera director, and Richard Kosowski is an amazing choral director. Collaborating with this team has been a real joy, and I hope I get to work with them more in the future.”

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