You can still hear the lilt of a West Texas accent when he speaks. And though he's ventured far from the rural town he grew up in, now-local Monterey playwright, actor and musician Thomas Burks, draws from his native roots to create a rich story world in his work.

Burks' new play, "A Farmboy Mantra," will be presented by The Western Stage through Hartnell College's Open Studio program this weekend.

The production opens Friday night at the Studio Theater on campus in Salinas, where it will run for two subsequent performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Created in artistic collaboration with The Actor's Collective, this multimedia production is directed by Nina Capriola. Featured performers include Burks, Chris Anderson, Matt Bailey, Donna Federico, Jeffrey T. Heyer, Jill Jackson, Leslie Lancaster, Taylor Landess, Deirdre McCauley, David Parker, Charlie Steves, Michelle Vallentyne, Emily Weinberg and Larry Welch.

Burks' original songs have been woven throughout the play, which also features three short films created by Charlie Steves.

What originally began as a string of monologues, which Burks wrote for the annual monologue competition at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, immediately captured the hearts of Actor's Collective performers with its rich imagery and truth.

"It's just beautiful," said Capriola, who knew as soon as she heard the original work read aloud that she would like to see the story come to life as a fully staged production.


"His work carries an essence of truth and emotion that hits every one of us. It cuts through the crap and it resounds within you on so many levels."

Perhaps it rings so true because much of it was born from the loam of Burks' farmboy past.

"I grew up outside a small town near Lubbock in northwest Texas," said Burks in an unassuming accent that draws you in, inviting you to sit down and listen. "Once I (moved away and) lost contact with working with the Earth on the ground, I felt disoriented. The story started out with a person who's somewhat adrift. I looked at it like I was going through the family album, picked up a photo, threw it down and tried to tell what happened. Some (of the characters) are based on people I grew up closely with, and some are tall tales."

For example, Burks said that he didn't kill his father. But as a child, one of his schoolmates was the son of a man who was a Grand Dragon in the Klu Klux Klan.

And he has a clear memory of a religious sermon he attended where it was taught that it was a husband's responsibility to "keep his woman and children in line," using any means possible — even physically beating them.

"These people didn't grow up with the notion of equality," said Burks. "But they somehow found their way out of the rut. They didn't crawl very far from the rut, but they didn't let other people cast their role in life."

Burks admitted that writing this play — and then having the opportunity to watch other people re-enact scenes from his life — was a therapeutic process. He described the way scenes from his past came to him as "a purging."

"It's not a lighthearted romp," said Capriola, relaying the serious subject matter of this play. "It's deep and rich. It's about abuse between husbands and wives and the way they treat their children. It's about when people leave and things get hard."

But, in the end, the characters in this play do eventually find redemption — something that was important to Actor's Collective members to bring out of the story.

"It can't just be an ass kicking," Capriola explained. "At the other end of the spectrum, I find that it's about great love, hope, survival, friends and family.

"It's all about feeling OK about what lot you've been given, and trying not to let your past dictate your future," said Burks, speaking as much about his life as about the play. "Everyone is dealt a harsh hand in one way or another — and that doesn't have to define who you are."

Lily Dayton can be reached at GO!


What: The Western Stage at Hartnell College's Open Studio presents "A Farmboy Mantra," a new play from Thomas J. Burks
Where: The Studio Theater, Hartnell College campus, 411 Central Ave., Salinas
When: Opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 30, and continues at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 31 and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 1
Tickets: $10 general/$5 students to benefit The Actor's Collective; available at the door, cash only