The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
24 Gipe, Mullinax, Stanley, & Turpin
“Shelter.” Act Two focuses on the metaphoric flood of drugs, with a series of scenes, entitled “Need,” spotlighting the destruction addiction to prescription drugs has caused. Surrounding these two flood narratives are celebrations of communal identity. The closing scene features members of the community helping repair a neighbor’s roof before more rain comes. Higher Ground 2: Playing with Fire offers the theme of personal and communal responsibility. Two stories interweave: the story of Lucy, a young unwed mother, who is an addict; and the story of a group of coal miners. The coal miners’ story begins in a light-hearted manner—the Act 1 scenes are labeled “Horseplay” and highlight the camaraderie of coal miners who go down into the earth together and have each others’ backs until they emerge safely at the end of the shift. In Act 2, the mining stories take a darker turn—ending with a scene entitled “The Black Damp,” in which three miners are killed, in spite of their best efforts to take care of each other. Higher Ground 3: Talking Dirt opens with what my eastern Kentucky community called dinner on the ground, as folks bring dishes of tomatoes and corn and beans from the garden to share. This scene of communal home grown bounty is in the background, then, as Talking Dirt explores the central narrative of the lack of economic opportunity for the younger generation and, thus, the problem of outmigration as residents are driven out of the region in the search for jobs. While the subject is treated seriously, there’s a good deal of humor in the play. For example, Talking Dirt offers recurring short scenes featuring the progress of three Kentuckians trying to get home for the weekend from Cincinnati. The continual longing for home is reinforced by a joke one of the characters tells: the punch line is that in heaven St. Peter has to keep the Kentuckians chained to rocks; otherwise, they would go home every weekend. But the laughter of both performers and audience is tinged with awareness of the loneliness of the emigrant exiled from the Appalachian hills which are home. Some members of the younger generation may figure out how to stay in Harlan but their path ahead is unclear. Leaving means losing more than just the land—it means losing community, history, songs, and stories. And knowing what is at stake doesn’t always protect you from losing it. Higher Ground 4: Foglights does a remarkable and subtle job of making visual the fluidity of the generations. The seamlessness of past and present is introduced as Foglights opens with the cast singing “I’ll Meet you in the Morning,” leading into a scene entitled “Decoration Day,” in which a character named Misty explains to the audience that her
family maintains four family graveyards: “One across the mountain, one in town, and two up the forks of the river” (1). The play juxtaposes scenes of younger community members with scenes of previous generations working through some of the same struggles, providing a reminder that the problems and joys of living don’t actually change all that much no matter how much time passes. In Foglights , as in Talking Dirt , chief among challenges for the younger members of the community is the ambivalence they feel about place. Some are torn between loving their home but not seeing a way to stay while others feel trapped by the community but are unable to envision a way to leave. Addiction continues to take a toll. The junk and plastic values of the modern world threaten to obscure that which is precious and real. One of the younger community members would like to live close to her father but quite literally cannot do so because of all the broken appliances and other flotsam he has surrounded himself with on the homeplace. While the play closes with the song “My Way Home” and a communal junk-sorting, where, according to the stage directions, everybody on stage is “singing and happy” ( Higher Ground 4 41), the play has made the point that for many the path ahead is uncertain. This brings us to Higher Ground 5: Find a Way, the first of the five plays to use three acts instead of two. Otherwise, Find a Way builds on the successful structure of the first four plays: multiple scenes, a large cast, amazing music, and interwoven stories playing off each other in a sophisticated narrative mix. However, Find a Way breaks some new ground, especially in its willingness to introduce a story line about a gay character, who reveals that fact to her family as the action of the play takes place. Her secret is only one of the secrets the family is keeping hidden; the father of the family is laid off at the coal mines and is too ashamed to tell his wife and children. As the play unfolds, the title phrase, Find a Way , resonates with meaning: find a way to talk to each other; find a way to get through hard times caused by the loss of a job or the death of a child; find a way to change the failed promises of education. The stories, the music, the performers—all are driven by an energy, an optimism, and a sense of purpose that is palpable during the production. The fact that Higher Ground 5 belongs entirely to the community, the professionals having been relegated to serving as on-call “understudies,” is perhaps the strongest evidence of the righteousness of that optimism. What is happening in Harlan County is important.
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