Disaster-Relief expert Fred Cuny (1944-95) was a fearless globetrotting “Master of Disaster” whose life’s work made him a witness to some of the 20th century’s greatest man-made disasters in Africa, Southeast Asia, Kurdistan, and Bosnia and ultimately in Chechnya, where he disappeared in April 1995 during a Russian bombardment. His body was never found.

Scott Anderson published his biography of Cuny, The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero, in May 1999. That book fascinated Burning Coal Theatre Company artistic director Jerome Davis, who later enlisted Big Apple dramatist Floraine Kay to help him adapt it for the stage. (Kay previously collaborated with New York director/playwright Randolph Curtis Rand on Burning Coal’s prize-winning 2001 stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incendiary anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)

The world premiere of Davis and Kay’s script, directed by deep ellum ensemble artistic director Matthew Earnest of New York City, stars award-winning local actor David Henderson as Cuny. The show will open tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in downtown Raleigh, NC.

Besides Henderson, the show’s cast includes Terry Milner as Scott Anderson, Canady Vance as Jinx Parker, Lynne-Marie Guglielmi as Sonja Vukotic, Carl Martin as Carl Long, George Jack as Kurt Schork, Mitchell Butts as Ivan, and Trae Hicks as Craig Cuny. (Vance, Guglielmi, Martin, Jack, and Butts will play multiple roles.)

Jerry Davis started writing three years ago, teamed up with Floraine Kay two years ago, and signed Matthew Earnest to direct the show’s world premiere in October, 2003. Earnest calls the script “a treatise on courage” and says the play will unfold on “a rough-hewn arena stage,” under stark lighting, with the cast dressed in simple costumes.

Davis says, “The play is about the life of a tall Texan, Fred Cuny. He started with a decidedly middle-class, mediocre upbringing and managed to make himself, through the force of his own will, one of the most important men on earth. He would have been even more important and successful if the people in positions of power had listened to him, but he faced many battles against bureaucracy and finally ended up just doing what he saw needed to be done and dealing with the consequences later.”

He adds, “Fred’s life was so full, so rich that the real problem for us has been deciding what to leave out. You could almost write a whole play about each of the many episodes. We had to figure out what the question was (which we finally did) and then decide which episodes strengthen that ‘spine.'”

Matt Earnest admits, “It’s always a trick portraying real people. You have this mad desire to be true to the facts, and yet you’re making a play with large themes that (you hope) are universal, so inherent in that is the need to stretch the characters and situations to a mythic scale. We’re reaching higher than photo-realism. We definitely believe we are making a play and not a docudrama.”

Jerry Davis adds, “There’s a great scene that happened in 1989. Fred had been sent by the Pentagon over to Russia just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to see what was what. As all the Pentagon heavies poured over maps of the continent, Fred was on the other side of the map, yelling, ‘No, no, no. If things flare up over there, THIS is where you need to worry.’ The Pentagon types looked incredulously at the place he was pointing. ‘Chechnya?’ they asked. ‘That’s an internal problem, Fred, and the Russians have it taken care of.'”

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents The Man Who Tried to Save the World Thursday-Saturday, May 27-29 and June 3-5 and 10-12, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 30 and June 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theatre in the back of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($13 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $50 June 5th annual fundraiser. 919/834-4001, e-mail burning_coal@ipass.net, or visit http://www.burningcoal.org/tickets.htm. Note 1: May 27th will be “Meet Scott Anderson Night,” with an Audience TalkBack session sponsored and conducted by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) immediately following the performance. (The IAEM will have an information booth in the theater’s lobby for all performances.) Note 2: The May 29th performance will be sign language interpreted. Note 3: The May 30th and June 6th performances will be free; and they will be followed by a special symposium sponsored by North Carolina Humanities Council, with Drs. Gerald Suhr and Alex DeGrand of North Carolina State University’s Department of History leading the IAEM-sponsored Audience TalkBack. Note 4: The $50-a-head June 5th performance is Burning Coal’s special annual fundraiser; it includes wine and heavy hors d’oeuvres, starting at 6:30 p.m. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. PBS Frontline Special on Fred Cuny: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cuny/.