The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII

74 Chamberlain

ideologies and representations are constructed, challenged, and reified through popular entertainment. In two classes, I had a total of twenty-nine students (seventeen women and twelve men), all aged between seventeen and twenty. Three were African American, one self-identified as “mixed race,” and the rest were white. Twenty-three were from southwest Virginia or eastern Tennessee; the others were from North Carolina, New Jersey, and Washington DC. One was from Italy. After the students read the script and watched the play, but before any class discussion, I had them do an ungraded, anonymous free writing about their reactions. Their responses were mixed, with comments ranging from “in this brilliant play, Bush shows that there are good and smart people in Appalachia” to “wow, it was like watching a zoo with hillbillies in it.” One student wrote, “yah [sic], the show did have plenty of backward Appalachians but I did laugh a lot, and I have to admit in my hometown I know people just like Jackson and Jewell so I guess I can’t really call it stereotypes. I can identify.” In fact, thirteen (43%) of the twenty-nine students made similar comments: 1) that one cannot call a representation “stereotypical” if a viewer/reader knows a real person who resembles that character, and 2) that the play contains people and/or situations that are “relatable” or with which the students could “identify.” Interestingly, however, even though the majority of the group was composed of Appalachian natives, the sources of their identification were rarely with the Appalachian characters as Appalachians . Students would say that they identified with Evelyn’s going away to college or with the situation of a parent who disapproved of a boyfriend/ girlfriend. Even those who said they knew people like Jackson or Faye usually took pains to distance themselves from any personal identification or even from empathy. Sometimes they took oppositional positions: one woman wrote, “I’m in college because who wants to end up like Faye?” These comments made me start thinking about the phenomenon of “identification” with a literary character or situation and about the functions of stereotypes in general. We usually use the phrase “I can identify” in a positive (if murky) sense, suggesting anything from Aristotelian empathy to a recognition of aspects of one’s actual experience. The notion of stereotyping, on the other hand, is almost always seen as negative, as a misrepresentation, or at least as only a partial, slanted representation. But stated in this way, these notions are simplistic and don’t fully account for the complex and dynamic relationships that a

performed play generates among audience, actor, and playwright. In particular, they don’t satisfactorily account for viewers’ varied responses to the narratives of “Appalachia” that are constructed and performed in The Other Side of the Mountain . It’s this last point that I find most intriguing as I consider how this play functions as a social artifact and why I find it a problematic and perhaps even dangerous representation both of Appalachians and of regional outsiders like O’Malley. On the one hand, my response is hardly new: scholars of Appalachia have long objected to simplistic national depictions of the region as all-white, ignorant, backward, and shoeless—depictions that often serve political and economic agendas rather than the cause of historical or cultural accuracy. As Dwight Billings notes in Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes , “many representations” of Appalachia have been and remain “monolithic, pejorative, and unquestioned” (3). Billings published Back Talk partly in response to another stereotype-filled piece of theatre; Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle . But after a point, merely identifying the presence of Appalachian stereotypes has limited critical utility; an effective analysis must go beyond this stage so that we can, as Billings writes, “provide insight into the operations of cultural power and ideology in America that such stereotyping signifies” (3). To that end, I explore Catherine Bush’s play as an example of how the stereotypes are instantiated and how they accomplish their cultural work of constructing the region in the national conversation. Part of the difficulty with The Other Side of the Mountain is that viewers are presented with what novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story”—the conceptual narrowness created when complex human cultures and behaviors are reduced to one repeated representation. There are many Appalachias and many stories present them, but this play offers us only the standard tropes of whiteness and ignorance and moonshine and outhouses. As scholar Kate Egerton noted during the E&H literary festival, there’s a difference between writing that is “of ” a place—that participates in or is centered in the identities and cultures being described—and writing that is “about” a place or that looks from the outside in and makes little attempt to contextualize or complicate. The Other Side of the Mountain is “about” Appalachia (or a cartoon version of it) rather than being “of ” the region. At the end, where is the audience positioned? I argue that we’re left without a coherent place to stand within the world of the play, without a sense of meaningful

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