Black and white photo of two men head to head with each other on stage looking into each others' eyes

Fran Belin

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

The prosecuting attorney swung about in his huge rotating oak desk chair. “Well, you’re right about that, Miz Lee. Powley’s Creek is about as far from professional theater as anyone could get.”

I had accompanied “Miz” Lee into the nineteenth-century Summers County, West Virginia, courthouse to try to persuade Harold Eagle to take a role in EcoTheater’s latest play, A Double-Threaded Life: The Hinton Play. Hinton is the county seat of West Virginia’s most rural and mountainous county, a rugged, isolated place of extraordinary beauty. Only 100 years ago Charles Nordhoff, author of Mutiny on the Bounty, wrote back to his New York newspaper editor, calling Summers County a “howling wilderness.” Nordhoff had come to report on the hazardous conditions attending construction of the Big Bend railroad tunnel. 

A century later, “Miz” Maryat Lee, a sometime New York playwright, came to this “howling wilderness” (she is fond of quoting those words, some irony intended), far from the lights of Broadway. Lee operates a grassroots or indigenous theater here, a theater for people who usually don’t go to plays, a theater that returns, as she once said, “to the people as the source for drama,” a move “which alone can restore vitality to drama.” 

An EcoTheater actor can be anyone who doesn’t want to act but can be persuaded. Recruits include school children, farmers, preachers, housewives, salesmen, nurses, and many retired folks. Friends help out by making costumes, while scenery, lights, sound, props — all the expensive technical paraphernalia of modem theater — are kept to a minimum. 

Grassroots theaters have been working quietly all over the United States for years. Something of the sort was popular during the Depression years, when political radicals appropriated the form as agitprop, a type of propaganda. Fueled by the Vietnam peace movement, street theater enjoyed a boom of feverish activity during the late 1960s and early 70s. To Maryat Lee, however, these  forms are not "grassroots" or "indigenous"; she holds that a true grassroots theater has no overt political agenda. 

Defining indigenous theater, though, taxes even Lee, a native Kentuckian who moved to New York City and became famous overnight for her 1951 production of a play called Dope!* That play was unusual in numerous ways. Produced in a vacant lot in East Harlem on a crude wooden platform stage, the play’s actors, for the most part, were amateurs. The audience milled, hooted, talked back to the actors, clambered up on stage, and roared when the leading actor, portraying an addict, shot-up on stage. Reviewers were electrified and called the performance “shocking” and “hard-hitting.” Life magazine gave it an ample photo spread. 

Lee herself was inspired by the event and 30-odd years later wrote: 


I had scratched the surface — the skin of a sleeping animal so vast and powerful that I alternatively was thrilled and alarmed when its skin rippled under my touch and its eyes cracked open briefly. It held me with its mystery and power.


The repertory for this kind of theater — some call it “street theater,” others say “indigenous” or “grassroots” theater — originates, according to Lee, solely from those who practice it — directors, actors, and writers who create their own material largely for audiences that do not ordinarily attend theater, and particularly those who are economically or socially disadvantaged. A scattering of grassroots theaters operates all over the United States, especially in large cities. Some are located in the South: Whitesburg, Kentucky’s Roadside Theater, and the Road Company in Johnson City, Tennessee, are two examples. 

After her success with Dope!, Lee earned a master's degree in religious study from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University and went on to work in New York’s professional theater. Later, in 1968 Lee founded the Soul and Latin Theater (SALT) in East Harlem. Having worked in professional theater long enough to feel it was fixated on profits and trivial entertainment, she sought to create a theater that portrayed the real lives of people. 

SALT was pure city street theater. The plays Lee wrote for SALT — Day to Day (published by Samuel French, 1970), After the Fashion-show, The Classroom, and Luba — centered on themes like drug addiction, family tensions, poor schools, fear of crime, and violence. The plays were written in the language of her Harlem actors, who were not professionals. 

Wanting to live and work closer to her Kentucky roots, and interested in discovering whether street theater could be transplanted to a rural area, Lee moved to Powley’s Creek, Summers County, West Virginia in 1970. She had considered returning to her native Kentucky, but thought at the time that her family might inhibit her with too many preconceived notions about theater. While driving across southern West Virginia, she and a friend — Fran Belin, a professional photographer and piano teacher — discovered in the remoteness of Summers County a region that enchanted them. They wandered into a real estate office in town, where an agent “just happened” to have a small, upland form for sale. It was love at first sight. 

Lee took several years to establish herself in the community and to gather material for some new plays. What preserves the integrity of EcoTheater as indigenous theater, Lee believes, is her long-term commitment to Summers County. In 1975 she started EcoTheater, and has written and produced four plays for it: Four Men and a Monster (Samuel French, 1965), a play she actually wrote while still in New York; Ole Miz Dacey; John Henry; and A Double-Threaded Life: The Hinton Play. 

For a few years she worked with government and foundation support, especially through generous funding from the West Virginia Humanities Foundation, the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, and the Governor’s Summer Youth Program. The funding paid 15 to 18 local high school students during the summers to be in the arts program. These youngsters learned to act, cut cloth and sew costumes, hammer together a stage set, and paint canvas and wood. Funding for students has slimmed to a trickle in recent years, and Lee has turned to the adults of Summers County to be her actors. 

During its first year EcoTheater was outdoor summer theater, and the plays were performed in a very primitive way. Lee simply marked off a performing area in a pasture or town park with a few banners made from household fabrics hung from poles. The small audiences — never more than 50 — stood or sat on the ground in a semi-circle. People learned to bring their own lawn chairs for a bit of comfort. 

Most of the actors wore jeans and other everyday dress; important, however, were costumes made by a friend, Eileen Cramer, who became “costume designer.” Eileen made the costumes with scraps of fabric and a lot of imagination. The actors’ voices were the only sound equipment and the sun the only lighting. Lee loved this rudimentary theater; to her this was the essence of drama: theater from the ground up. “You can’t believe what this theater meant to everybody,” says Lucinda Ayres, a homemaker who has never lived outside Summers County. She was enthralled to see the young people proud and expert in what they were doing and learning. 

The early years of EcoTheater were not easy. The chronic shortage of funds always proved inhibiting, and for a long time many Summers County citizens maintained a casual but distinct aloofness. Lee had to exert a great deal of patience in nurturing her first small, tentative audiences. Over time, people began to trust her and the little theater, and a small but enthusiastic audience grew. The townspeople of Hinton, though, were slower to ignite. Never hostile, they just didn’t seem to care much. Lee gradually enlisted the help of the local media and a few civic-minded merchants. The radio station gave her spot announcements, the newspaper ran generous reviews with photos, and the merchants displayed her posters. And today the local Chamber of Commerce sponsors an EcoTheater production each  year for the Hinton Whitewater Festival. 

Lee is the first to say, “It hasn’t been easy. There were times I just thought I’d quit. If it hadn’t been for Lucinda Ayres coming to me one day when I had given up and saying, ‘Maryat, you just have to keep EcoTheater alive, for Summers County, for me', I might have thrown in the towel for good. But look at us now! We have a theater from the bottom up, a theater free of stereotypes, a theater with an audience that doesn’t generally attend ‘theater’ in the decadent art or commercial sense, a theater with an audience for whom I feel a genuine affection.” 

In 1977 EcoTheater added a flatbed farm wagon that the players could convert into a stage in about 20 minutes, setting up canvas backdrops on two-by-four frames set into brackets. Drawn by an old jeep, the stage could be used almost anywhere for a performance: pasture, town square, parking lot, restaurant yard, or state park. The wagon allowed EcoTheater to move about the hollows of Summers County. Over the years the group performed in the Hinton town square, at Pence Springs, the Riverside Inn, the Raleigh County Courthouse Square, and many other places. The stage was fitted with a rudimentary sound and lighting system, permitting evening performances and shows in noisy, congested places. During the last two years, however, EcoTheater has settled down and performs primarily at the Pipestem State Park Amphitheatre.  


Lee's first play for EcoTheater, Four Men and a Monster, tells the story of three Appalachian drifters who have holed up in a rundown hotel room in a Midwestern city. Moved by desperate financial need, Hal, the leader of this expatriate trio, has persuaded Tot and Upjohn, a mentally-retarded man, to join him in a murder. In this bizarre plot, Upjohn is appointed to marry a woman who they believe stands to inherit a small fortune. Whether the money actually exists is a question. The woman — whom we never see — is grotesquely fat. The “monster” of the title is, according to Tot’s exaggerated description, “six-headed, 12-busted, 20-cheeked.” Hal has colluded with her brother, a decadent city-type named Buena, to murder her as soon as the marriage is made and her inheritance safely bestowed upon Upjohn. The murder plot is foiled but the play ends with a different, unanticipated slaying. 

Four Men and a Monster was originally produced professionally in 1967 at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, but to Lee the play didn’t really come alive until a 1980 EcoTheater production. The performances turned in by Charlie Haywood and Mike Buckland, both of whom live on Powley’s Creek, Robert Anderson of Rainelle, and John Gulley of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were electrifying. Charlie Haywood’s performance is still talked about by Powley’s Creek people as especially powerful. 

“Folks don’t have to assume any airs to play these parts,” says one of Haywood’s neighbors. “They don’t have to speak in any accent but their own. Don’t have to pretend to be somebody else or to put on a mask. Rather,” she says, “Maryatgot them somehow to reach inside themselves, to take their masks off, as she puts it, to find those parts of themselves that they had hidden from others.” 

John Henry is perhaps Lee’s best known Appalachian play. Here is a group of people from the 1870s — gypsies, freed black slaves, tinkers, peddlers, itinerants, landladies, a doctor, a midwife, workers, and John Henry himself — united, depending on each other in the hostile wilderness that Summers County was in those years. Lee’s play vividly shows the difficulties and the terrors of tunneling through Big Bend Mountain, the mingled excitement and sense of victory, outrage, and pain of life in the rude workers’ camp that sprouted up at the East Portal. 

It is astonishing how the imagined life of a play, any play, infects the actors who bring it to life and through them the audience. In the case of John Henry it worked a near miracle, especially when the EcoTheater company rehearsed and performed at the East Portal of the old tunnel itself. During the 1981 season they performed at night, and a freight train would come roaring out of the night right through the middle of the performance. The audience and cast were stirred by the passage of that train: a vital and visible fruit of the labor, suffering, and deaths of the characters in the play — ancestors of the audience. 

It might be said that EcoTheater gives back the audience’s past, lets them, along with their neighbors, understand and celebrate their history. It helps them probe who they are and what they might want to do with their lives. “What a good thing for West Virginia,” says a neighbor of Lee. 

A large part of Lee’s inspiration to write John Henry was the mountains. The legend interested her, of course. She thought that as a Summers County playwright she ought to write a play about the hero of Summers County, but as a woman and a feminist she was at first put off by the image of the musclebound hero. She did some research, reading, and talking with old-timers, and she concluded that there was more to John Henry than muscle. She found a spiritual quality that, she believed, inspired the people around him. 

What inspired her, she says, was Summers County itself: the white water running free and fast through gorges between close, looming mountains. John Henry was the result, the drama of the struggle for survival in this beautiful but hard place. She came to see that the place made tough but wonderful people, that the ancestors of her mountain neighbors needed to master the place in order to survive in it, and that it became an essential part of the spirit of those who survived. Lee has said that the setting of a grassroots play “should not be distinct from its audience.” The settings of the street plays she wrote in New York City, for example, “almost include the audience, since there is as little separation, that is, as there is between actor and role. The audience is therefore pleased to regard the play somehow as part of them, or themselves as part of the play.” 

John Henry consists of a series of scenes of the rough frontier life of the railroad community during the 1870s, with an eye on how that community anticipates the one of today. The contest between John Henry and the steam drill concludes the play; John Henry wins, but he dies with his hammer in his hand. Lee gives the legend some interesting twists, though. Not everyone may agree with her John Henry. He’s not a muscle man. He’s not a big hero. He’s not even the focal point of the plot: the place and the people occupy center stage. Furthermore, Lee cast young women to play the part of John Henry several times. 

Lee’s John Henry has stoic courage and tall doses of integrity and self-reliance. And John Henry shares his humanity; he’s not some alienated, brooding loner. The forces of nature and human greed and intensifying industrialization combine to destroy him, but he meets his fate with naivete and grace — he “ain’t nothin’ but a man,” as the song says, but what a man he is, as Lee is fond of saying. Many of the youths who took parts in John Henry — whether as actors or stage hands, boys and girls alike — developed a new pride in themselves because of the play. 

EcoTheater people say that EcoTheater allows them to live out and explore a part of themselves that doesn’t come out much in daily life. “Like Miz Dacey of me,” says Lucinda Ayres. Miz Dacey is the title character of Lee’s gentle comedy about a humorous and eccentric but independent old woman. Lee picked up a lot of gossip once she got established up on Powley’s Creek, and she put the play together from a little talk here and a little chatter there. 

Actually, as Lee tells it, the play originated when an old woman called the TV store in Hinton to complain about her set. The man she reached was Jimmy Costa, whose father runs the store. Jimmy Costa is something of a practical joker, and the next day he telephoned the store and started a long conversation mimicking the old woman. “She” had the store in an uproar of laughter. “Little green men’s adrippin’ outa my TV, Mr. Costa, and them things — them little critters — is abouncin’ all over my floor. Now you better git your truck up here right now and fix this here thing.”  

Jimmy loved it. So “Miz Dacey” called Jimmy’s friend, Lee, continuing the gag. She thought the caller was some old woman who had reached the wrong number, but she listened until Jimmy burst out laughing, giving away the gag. Lee also loved it because a number of things came together for her through Costa’s phone call. She sat down almost right away and wrote the play for Costa as Miz Dacey. He loved it even more and thoroughly enjoyed himself playing old Miz Dacey. 

Lucinda Ayres has played Miz Dacey for three years now, and to her the role means something different than it did to Costa. The role has changed as well. Lee always changes a script to fit each actor’s special talents and needs. Costa as Miz Dacey wanted to play the fiddle. Ayres needs to express the old woman’s underlying good sense, human warmth, and sturdy self-reliance. Lee explores each actor, seeks out his or her special needs and talents, tries to locate that unique quality that defines him or her and rebuilds the part to bring those elements out. 

Miz Dacey is Ayres’s favorite role. She feels that Miz Dacey, with her old-fashioned country ways, is an important part of herself that she can fully express only when she is playing this role on stage. Lee built the character around two of her neighbors on Powley’s Creek. One of them was 79 years old when Lee wrote the play, while her husband was in his forties. They were married when he was 19, but no one in the hollow thought the union peculiar. This couple gave Lee the idea for the romance that develops in the play between Miz Dacey and young Orfin Furlow. The scenes between them explore how such a relationship might happen quite naturally. 

Another old woman provided some of the dialogue of the play through oral history. This widow carried a revolver. Her dress was worn where the weight of the revolver had stressed the cloth. She was a good shot at snakes and could, she said, “shoot the head off a copperhead from here to the barn.” She would shoot if anyone failed to knock, and asserted, “If anyone steps in, he won’t step out.” 

Lee says that writing grassroots plays is “largely listening and building. The writer’s ‘self gets, not lost, but put into a corner as you become not a writer but a ‘wright.’ It is not a matter of your own language and ideas and feelings but what is happening all around you.” Writing from what was around her, Lee created her most recent EcoTheater play, A Double-Threaded Life: The Hinton Play, a play that embodies all of her ideas about grassroots theater.   


The Hinton Play is built almost exclusively on oral history — people talking about themselves. A retired railroader pays tribute to the old steam engine days. A retired nurse wants to figure out who she is and how she wants to spend the rest of her life. A fisherman evokes the pleasures of his favorite activity. Miz Dacey returns, arguing with a roofer about repairing her house during the wrong sign of the moon. Ethel Hinton explains how the county seat of Summers County got its name and how ownership of the land on which the town sits was acquired. 

Lee has written over 30 scenes for the play. On any night of performance, however, fewer than a dozen or so will be played, depending on which actors are available. Occasionally, for example, Sims Wicker, a former mayor of Hinton, will be on a fishing trip; Mitch Scott, an insurance executive from Lewisburg, will be on a business trip; Joe and Jewel Bigony of Hinton will be occupied by business; someone else may have to nurse a sick child or be stranded by a dead battery. EcoTheater actors are not professionals; for them the show does not have to go on, but their lives do. So the cast changes from time to time, and as Lee gathers more stories and dialogue from her neighbors the play grows. Each time you see it, it’s a little different. 

Lee started this play after talking with Jinx Johnson, a now-deceased friend from Hinton. Johnson asked Lee when she was going to write a play about the day Hinton died, referring to the time that the C&O Railroad replaced the old steam engine with diesels. Since the 1870s, when Big Bend was built and the railroad was rammed through these mountains, the roundhouse in Hinton had employed hundreds of men to service the steam locomotives that pulled all the east-west traffic across the mountains. Diesels don’t need all that service, nor all those workers. Only a fragment of the roundhouse now remains, and since the 1950s the population of Hinton has declined over 50 percent to its present 4,000. 

Inspired, Lee went to work. She wanted to embody in drama the spirit of Hinton people over the last half-century, centering on this overshadowing technological event. She began stringing together a series of monologues and dialogues based on the oral history, threaded together by the voice of a narrator, a sort of stage manager. He begins by telling some of the early history of the place, then how in the railroad days it became a boom town with 700 men working in the roundhouse, 14 passenger trains a day, an opera house, and an elegant hotel. Each character, based on an historical Hinton personage, gets up and speaks his or her piece. Some typify the town, while others are a separate breed. The narrator introduces each character and provides a transition between them. There is no explicit plot, but by the end of the play a portrait of Hinton and Summers County has been drawn. 

The play demonstrates that Hinton didn’t die with the coming of the diesel, but merely changed the way it lived and entered a new phase of history. 

The performance gives the actors their usual reward: the thrill of the contact with the audience, the applause, the inner payoff for all those hours of rehearsal. But there’s more. For one thing, most of that audience shares the daily lives of the actors. And after the applause, that’s different, too: an EcoTheater actor doesn’t just drive away. Being an EcoTheater actor means being a part of a process which involves the slow, sometimes painful revelation (or reinforcement) of self and community — or self in community. As Lee says: 


The real object of EcoTheater is not an artful performance, though we strive to make that happen; nor is it an aesthetically sound text, though I always do my best to fulfill my art because only through art are we led to truth; no, the object, I guess, is the process of theater itself, because that process sheds a new light on everyday reality, making each person’s life more meaningful, more important, more real, if you will. It’s therapeutic, though not in the usual sense. We have to somehow find ourselves underneath our social roles and yet remain part of our community. 


Many in the audience find unforgettable the experience of an EcoTheater play. One person said recently: “From Maryat Lee’s plays I get a new sense of what people are like here, a sense of the roots and pride. It’s something I miss in my life. . . . The sense of heritage is so strong.” 

That’s why the discussion following the play is an important part of every EcoTheater performance. The actors and crew come out and sit on the stage, Lee comes down front, and a dialogue with the audience begins. People ask questions: “Where did you get the idea for that scene about the railroad inquest?” “My daddy taught me some things about planting according to the signs of the moon, and I believe in it.” “Is there a political message in the scene about the Vietnam vet?” The question answer session often goes on for over an hour, and many of the audience stop by to say thanks to Lee and the actors. Some offer suggestions and advice about the play — adding a scene, giving details about a local character or relative, telling a story. Often these tidbits find their way into the play. A few people volunteer to act or write a scene or work on a crew, and become part of EcoTheater. Lee said not long ago, “The theater company begins to share my joy at seeing themselves rise up and hearing themselves utter mysteriously authoritative sounds that are sweet and powerful.” 

All the participants — whether they come from the cow pasture or the court house — leave feeling a little more certain that the mountain heritage they share is one of the great treasures of their lives.

* Dope! was published in an acting version in 1957 and is now available in several editions.