The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

Kathleen Chamberlain

“Like Watching a Zoo with Hillbillies in It”: Cultural Positioning in The Other Side of the Mountain

In the fall of 2015, Emory & Henry College devoted its annual Appalachian Literary Festival to Appalachian drama. As part of the festival, the Theatre Department produced Catherine Bush’s play The Other Side of the Mountain , one of a tetralogy set in a fictional Mud Creek, Kentucky. The “Mud Creek” of the plays bears no relation to the actual town of Mud Creek, located in Floyd County, Kentucky, and known to many scholars and residents as the site of the Mud Creek Clinic, founded by local activist Eula Hall. Bush has said that she did not know of the town or story of the real Mud Creek when she wrote the initial play. The other entries in the tetralogy are The Quiltmaker , Comin’ Up a Storm , and Though the Mountains May Fall . Bush, the playwright-in-residence at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, very generously allowed Emory & Henry faculty to use her script in our classes that semester, free of charge. I decided to assign this work in my two sections of English 101, hoping that my primarily Appalachian students would find relevant content that could open fruitful avenues of discussion. But as I read, I had second thoughts. As written, the play is well-paced, with snappy comic lines and several inventive scenes and twists. Nevertheless, the story and characters seem to reinforce, rather than to question or complicate, many common negative stereotypes of both rural Appalachia and of academics: the local characters, presented as types and played mostly for laughs, are variously ignorant, narrow-minded, simple, casually racist, and occasionally given to underage sex. They’re yokels who spend a lot of time on the porch with the chickens, watching soap operas. The main academic character is a clueless ivory tower cliché who is surprisingly ignorant about both her own field and the region in which she lives. I also realized that I already knew this play: I’d seen it in 2003, when I served as a judge for the Barter Theatre’s annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. When I dug up my judge’s notes, I saw that I’d had the same problems with the draft that I had with the final version: two-dimensional and implausible characterization, questionable thematic implications about race, gender, and class, and, most obviously, unexamined, harmful stereotypes. While it’s certainly possible for an author to invoke stereotypes as a means of interrogating them, this approach does not mark The Other Side of the Mountain . The

script offers the audience no meaningful opportunity to critique its broad, cartoonish, generalized depiction of Appalachia. The plot involves some well-known tropes of rural Appalachian setting and behavior. In two acts, The Other Side of the Mountain tells the story of Evelyn Thacker, a Mud Creek native who has left to attend college at the University of Kentucky, where she is about to finish a advanced degree in biology. As the first act opens, Evelyn arrives home to tell her family (sister Faye, mother Jewell, and Faye’s fiancé of thirteen years, Vernon) that she will not be coming back to live in Mud Creek when she finishes school. She knows that Faye in particular will be distraught: Faye has been counting on Evelyn’s permanent return and has arranged a clerical job for her. At the same time, Evelyn’s ex-boyfriend, Jackson Bennett, comes back to Mud Creek on parole after serving time for running drugs. He’s decided to “settle down and be a real family man” by giving up drug dealing in favor of making “the best damn moonshine this state has ever seen” (Bush 18-19). He and Faye assume that Evelyn will marry him. Complications ensue when Evelyn’s lesbian lover appears unexpectedly. Siobhan O’Malley is a native New Yorker, a “city slicker” who teaches at the University of Kentucky; she and Evelyn have been a couple for several months. O’Malley wants to commit to Evelyn but finds herself horrified by the trappings of life in Mud Creek— the dirt, the poverty, the ignorance, the reliance on charity, and, most significantly, the outhouse, an artifact that is used primarily for comedy but also functions more seriously as a metonym for Appalachia. After an explosive confrontation in which O’Malley expresses her disgust and Evelyn accuses her of being bigoted and judgmental, the two eventually reconcile. For different reasons, each offers to give up her career in Lexington to move to Mud Creek; but that plan proves unnecessary. The ending finds them preparing to return to their city lives, with Evelyn no longer hiding her background and O’Malley beginning to challenge her own prejudiced views. Despite the problems (or more accurately, because of them), I decided to go ahead with my plan to have my classes read the play and attend one of the campus performances. I hoped the exercise would allow students to begin to explore some of the ways that our cultural

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