Monday, May 16, 2011

Seeing Appalachia through theatre

Sabrina Tavernise reported in the New York Times a few days ago about a series of plays set in Harlan County, Kentucky--coal country--plays that celebrate Appalachian culture. A professor at Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College, Robert Gipe, wrote the series, called "Higher Ground," which includes one called "Talking Dirt." In doing so, Gipe, an expert on Appalachia, collaborated with a folklorist and a music professor at the community college. Tavernise explains that Gipe had "grown weary of watching flip-chart presentations about the region’s problems. Their remedies were too sweeping, and their language, full of terms like “sustainable development,” were too lofty." Gipe says he was "interested in addressing issues, rather than endlessly naming them." A description of the plays follows:
The series, “Higher Ground,” describes in nuanced tones and local accents the hard realities of life here in Harlan, the heart of Kentucky coal country, which has been battered by decades of decline.
The title “Higher Ground” comes from the places communities flock to escape rising flood waters and is a metaphor for the monumental problems facing the area — drug abuse, strip mining, dwindling populations of young people.
Harlan County's 2009 population was 30,999, down from 33,202 in 2000. The county has lost half of its under-35 population since 1980. The rural brain part of the story reminds me of my own economically depressed home county where--for generations--young people left for jobs in cities, but where many return in their retirement.
Gipe says, "we have these hard things [like population loss] that we should talk about.” To do so, Gipe draws on a rural tradition of "getting together, telling stories and making music."

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