The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
Gipe, Mullinax, Stanley, & Turpin 25
There’s an honesty and a fierceness and a pride that make these plays the highest art. Never do the creators and performers and storytellers of Higher Ground give in to the impulse to accept the outsider perspective, to take the easy laugh, or even to acknowledge the toxic stereotypes. What is happening here is noble. It’s life changing. It’s community changing. As Robert Gipe says: The act of trying to understand one another is the greatest act of hope. It will save us all. But for such a studied people as the people of Harlan County—and even more to the point, such an acted-upon people, an often colonized and exploited people—what gratifies me about Higher Ground is that people in the community respond to the way it allows us to seriously consider ourselves in a public way. (“Door” 10) What a rare and beautiful gift the Higher Ground Coalition is giving to their community and to each other. As an academic, as a lover of theatre, as a fellow Kentuckian, I am enthralled by their work, and it’s an absolute privilege to be here talking about it. RG: First, I’d like to thank these two. I see a couple of our cast members here. Elaina and Jason are here. Elaina has been in all five productions, actually, and Jason married into the thing. He’s been in the last two productions. I wish we’d thought about what we were doing as much as these two have. That would be a lot better. We would have rehearsed a little harder if we had known they were going to praise our endeavors this much. I would also—as long as they’re here—I look around the room, and, as stupid as whatever I’m about to say is, it would be wasted were it not for the collection of my mentors that are here: Sandy Ballard and Pat Beaver from Appalachian State, Steve Fisher from Emory & Henry, Don Baker and Jack Wright from the Appalshop days, and, of course, my mother is back there as well. She has been like a mentor to me my whole life. Also, just while we’re at it, I think that Tal, Maureen, and I were in part of the same generation of Appalachian Studies. We were never quite young; there always seemed like there were always people younger than us in it. But we were never quite in that founding generation and ended up inheriting a lot from that founding generation. And we’ve figured out a lot of things together, so it’s really nice to be here with everybody. Like I said a minute ago, I’m really glad I didn’t prepare anything. For one, I would have planned to say much of what has already been said in this session, so I wouldn’t
have anything to say. But I’d like to hit on several things. Maureen talked about mobilizing grievances; and I think that is an important part of social change, getting people together to unify and in order to do that you have to buck up against something. I think it is also important to say that the Appalachian Regional Commission, working in concert with a lot of the leaders in Appalachian Studies, started a project called the Appalachian Teaching Project (ATP), where thirteen schools in a year’s time frame would have a class on developing the future of Appalachia. It was all about building on assets. That was really the impetus for what became Higher Ground. The first year we ever went to ATP was in 2001. I think one of our focal points was that whereas we had things we needed to talk about in the community, we started with the idea that you had valuable qualities as a community and a collection and analysis of those traits needed to be the starting point. One of the first things recognized in that first, initial strategic plan by a coalition of forty community people in 2001 was that our creativity was underdeveloped and underacknowledged, and we needed to do something about that. Additionally, when we started, we were in the first wave of Oxycontin and prescription medication drug abuse. The students sitting here now were children at that time. When we started, it was the first time in my years in the coalfields that I had ever been around that kind of drug abuse. And by that, I mean there had always been drunks and stuff, and pot and cocaine, but this was the first time we ever saw people overdosing and dying suddenly; the first time, suddenly, we ever saw rampant stealing, not just weed eaters and stuff from your parents and grandparents, but their medicine out of the medicine cabinet. There were syringes everywhere. I’ve heard people talk about when heroin came to the cities in the seventies or whatever and that it felt like that in eastern Kentucky. In those early days, ‘01 and ‘02, we had a sheriff election—if you want to talk about America, the land of opportunity—we had a sheriff candidate who had been sheriff, had been convicted of trying to have two magistrates assassinated, gone to prison, come back, and was one of the leading candidates to be sheriff again. On both sides, there were rumored ties to this rising drug trade; these guys were all tangled up with different knots of drug dealers. When we went to Washington that first year to talk about our assets and threats, they found this sheriff ’s candidate burned up in his truck in Pathfork, Kentucky.
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