In 2009, Winchester native Mark Mozingo enjoyed the kind of success most actors dream of: He originated a lead role in a new musical that received a positive review by the New York Times.
New York Times critic Anita Gates described Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, a bluegrass musical written by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, a “smart satire with a dark backwoods accent.”
Seven years later, Mozingo, a 2000 alumnus of the Governor’s School for the Arts, is reprising his role in AthensWest Theatre’s production of the Depression-era musical this weekend.
Based on J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the show offers an Appalachian twist on an Irish play that befuddled its 1907 audiences before becoming one of the most lauded dramatic works of the 20th century.
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Mozingo, who cut his theatrical teeth at the Leeds Center for Performing Arts in Winchester and the Lexington Children’s Theatre during his childhood, was living happily in New York when some disturbing news from back home led him back to the Bluegrass: His father was diagnosed with cancer.
“He got diagnosed in 2012, and it just kept getting worse. So I made the decision to come back to Winchester and be with my dad,” Mozingo says.
Even as his focus was on his family life, he yearned for a creative way to deal with the “super challenging” experience of helping his dad fight cancer.
“Because of what was happening with my dad, I needed an artistic outlet,” he says.
“I knew I couldn’t really work here because of Equity.” His membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, the stage actors union, prohibited him from working in most local theaters, which are non-union.
All of that changed when Mozingo spoke with Bo List, who was forming AthensWest. List brought Mozingo on board.
“We were just talking about the opportunities for professional theater in Lexington and asking, how can we fill a void that’s going to enable other union actors?” Mozingo says. “I was like, you know, I want to try to bring something like that back to my hometown while I’m here.”
Mozingo says he pitched the idea of reprising Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge because he thought its Appalachian flavor would appeal to local audiences.
“It really kind of fit,” Mozingo says. “It’s a small musical, and it’s set in the Blue Ridge mountains. I thought, where else are we going to find really good bluegrass musicians and an audience who will eat it up?”
The group also could draw from a well of actors familiar with the region.
“We don’t have to have a dramaturge come in and talk about the way people live in Appalachia,” Mozingo says. “We don’t have to have a dialect coach — they just know because it’s where we’re all from.”
Mozingo might not have a discernible accent, but it’s easy for him to slip into rural cadences thanks to his father’s upbringing in rural North Carolina and the influence of grandmother who is from Breathitt County.
“I grew up hearing all these mountain slang terms,” Mozingo says. “I was around that in my family, and then I was also in the city, in Lexington, doing theater.”
Mozingo’s father died last summer, and although he misses his friends in New York City, he’s sticking around the Bluegrass to help AthensWest — and Central Kentucky — continue to grow culturally. While he was away for more than a decade, attending Wright State University in Dayton and then working in New York, Mozingo observed a burgeoning arts scene during his visits home, and he is now happy to be contributing to it.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Mozingo says, “and although I’m not glad that my father passed away, I am grateful for the situation that allowed me to come here and be a part of creating a theater company when I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have had the ability or resources in do that in New York.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
‘Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge’
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of a musical written by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, with music and lyrics by Peter Mills, based on J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
When: 8 p.m. April 22, 23, 28-30; 2 p.m. April 24, May 1
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 adults, $20 senior adults and military