The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Baker, Bush, Harvey, House, Mitchell, Parson, & Shelby 49

music and sang. They were singing while they did chores, washed the dishes, or just sitting out on the porch and so on. I have not yet succeeded in being able to write a play without music in it. These are the things I was hearing: all these stories and all these old songs when I was a kid in the 1950s, in southeastern Kentucky, in Clay and Jackson Counties mostly. That was my dad’s family I was talking about, all those Cornett storytellers and all those Gabbard singers and pickers. But my mother’s family had a store, and so we were always hanging out there, as were a lot of storytellers. These were some of the regulars there like my Uncle Millard. They weren’t telling the Jack Tales or those old European fairytales anymore when I was there. But later, when I read Richard Chase’s and Leonard Roberts’ collections of Appalachian folktales, they sounded real familiar to me, not the stories themselves, but the ways of telling them. When I was a child, we lived in Jackson County, where my dad’s family was from. We also spent a lot of time at my mother’s family homeplace, just over the county line in Clay County, where I live now. I didn’t know it back then, but these were—and still are—two of the poorest counties in the United States. And yet, even allowing for a degree of nostalgia and hyperbole on my part, they were also places that were rich in language, story, and music. And they were places that valued performance. We had no local theatre group. We had no performances by touring theatre groups. What we had was church. That riser the pulpit sat on was the venue for dramatic readings, storytelling, personal experience monologues, and vocal and instrumental music. The audience/congregation gathered to participate in a communal experience of art, to confront questions about life and death, right and wrong, to emerge renewed, perhaps even changed, and ready to go eat. It took me a long time to figure out that what had attracted me to church as a young person attracted me to theatre as an adult. As dominant as it was, the church wasn’t the only game in town. Schools at that time and place were also scenes of

lively and well-attended performances. I won’t vouch for the quality of these; but like the church, they incorporated elements of theatre, and they served the functions of theatre in the community. In the early 1970s, just out of college, I began to see the culture I was from, not as opposed to the counterculture I’d come to identify with, but as overlapping with it in various interesting ways. People of my generation from all over the region who were coming to this same insight were also choosing to come back home, to live and work in the mountains. All this was giving rise to new ways of thinking and talking about Appalachia in academia, in politics, and in the arts. I landed at Appalshop in 1975, working on the quarterly Mountain Review. There I learned more about Appalshop films, June Apal Records, and Roadside Theater, which was doing plays based on Appalachian folklore and history and on stories of local communities. Roadside’s groundbreaking work, along with that of Jo Carson and others, contributed to another, more recent phase of Appalachian theatre: community plays. More and more communities in Appalachia are generating plays based on local stories, producing and performing those plays themselves for local audiences. Using Jo Carson’s first Higher Ground script as inspiration and model, with funding help from Berea College, director Bob Martin and I worked with people in Owsley County, Kentucky, to produce a series of plays based on that community’s stories. In Clay County, with a group called Stay in Clay, I’m working on a series of scripts based on Clay County history, which the local theater group will perform as outdoor dramas. Community plays in Appalachia celebrate the region’s stories, music, and culture. They look at its poverty, political corruption, and dismal health statistics; and they do not turn away. They make good use of the research and analyses of regional scholars. They strengthen community. They further democratization. They undermine stereotypes. In time, they may even eclipse the “hillbilly plays,” which have so far proven as persistent as the stereotypes they are based on. Lord hasten the day.

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