Staying Behind

illustration of three figures, one playing an instrument

courtesy of Roadside Theater

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

"This place makes a body think, and if you listen real close, it can help you find the answers . . . In Ya' Blood."

The place: the Appalachian Mountains. The voice: an old man. The lines are from a play written by high school students in Whitesburg, Kentucky who are among a growing corps of young people awakened to the beauty and pathos of their heritage by the playwrights and storytellers of Roadside Theater.

In Ya' Blood, in turn, is a by-product of Roadside's parent organization, Appalshop, a nonprofit media group which includes Appalshop Films, June Appal Recordings, "Headwaters" television show, and WMMT-FM Radio in Whitesburg.

In 1969, Appalshop received a federal grant to teach filmmaking to minority young people (in the late '60s Appalachian youth were considered a minority) — a job-training program which was to be an instrument of economic and social change. One of Appalshop's first students made the film In Ya' Blood which was the inspiration for the students who wrote the play fifteen years later, in 1984.

From the Appalshop base, Roadside got its start in 1974, dedicated to producing theater by and about the people of Southern Appalachia. The new theater company faced some tough audiences: Appalachian school children still confused about who they were and what the future held in store for them. The Roadside storytellers started out telling the stories of Appalachia to the children of Appalachia, many of whom no longer heard the yarns at their parents' knees.

Jack — the well-known hero of many mountain tales — has the quick wits and good fortune to triumph over any adversity, despite the poverty of his circumstances. For the performers — who grew up under the stigma of being from Appalachia themselves — the tales of Jack's exploits gave them a vehicle for showing children that being from the mountains is a source of pride rather than a shameful heritage.

Roadside members learned tale­telling from the masters they found around them: country preachers, aunts and uncles, farmers and fiddlers — anyone, in short, who had the time. In performance, they evolved a technique of improvisation, of breaking into another's story, of expanding on ripe details, and of doubling voices. They didn't just simulate some "hillbilly" reality: the tales improved with the telling. That experience, coupled with the egalitarian belief that their talent and success were within the reach of anyone, has kept Roadside Theater working in the schools and in its Appalachian community.

In 1985, 70 percent of Roadside's performances and workshops played to school children; yet school work accounted for only 25 percent of that year's earned income. To keep the theater financially stable the performers must spend a good deal of time on the road. Roadside regularly takes its shows to Atlanta, New York, Washington, and San Francisco. Currently there are four full-length plays touring with eight actors performing in various combinations. Roadside averages 200 performances a year.

Despite the necessity of performing in the flatlands, Roadside draws its artistic nourishment from the hills. Dudley Cocke, director of the troupe, admits, "We couldn't do this theater living in, say, New York. After a while we'd lose touch with the day-to-day reality here that we need to anchor our work."

The network of grants which keeps many U.S. artists crisscrossing the continent like medieval vagabonds helps Roadside maintain its contact with schools across the country and in its home region. It has worked with Indian settlements out West, in predominantly black communities in North and South Carolina, in northern Alabama, and in Virginia's coastal communities.

Wherever they are, Roadside members refuse to rely on the typical "15-minute song and dance" workshop for children. Instead, an educational program has evolved that fits the company philosophically by involving everyone in the company — playwrights, directors, and performers — and that suits the communities they visit as well. The workshops and the performances share a common goal: discovery. Roadside performer Ron Short explains that Roadside doesn't bring along a list of skills the student must master. "We say, 'This is something you can do. Now together let's figure out how.'"

''We are attracted to communities that, like ours, are struggling in some way," says Cocke. "Part of Roadside's message is, 'Look to your local culture and to your heritage to help figure out

who you are. Then figure out who and what is causing your problems. Having clarified the problem, search for the solution in a way that gives you hope of solving those problems.' Sounds simple, but in our experience it is very hard to do.''

Another goal of Roadside's educational thrust, according to Cocke, is "to help raise another generation of storytellers.'' A prestigious Ongoing Ensembles grant of $60,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts will enable Roadside to develop new plays, playwrights, and storytellers during the next five years. (Roadside received one of only eight awards made under the first year of this grant program, and it was the only rural theater to receive one).

While most Roadside members are either approaching or in their 40s, younger faces are being added to the company. Jeff Hawkins, administrator, developing actor, and playwright, is 25. In 1978 when Hawkins graduated from Fleming-Neon High School near Whitesburg, coal markets were booming and employment was close to an all-time high. Today unemployment is officially 22 percent and many believe the real figure to be closer to 50 percent. Hawkins can count perhaps 15 of his 75 classmates who still live in the area. Like so many of Appalachia's brightest, Hawkins left the region for college, but unlike the majority, he returned. That decision influences much of his work in the schools.

Seeing the need for drama in the school system, Hawkins initiated the first Whitesburg High School drama class, with help from a local English teacher. In Ya' Blood, the first student production, deals directly with the decision to stay behind — or the dilemma of being left behind — that all the kids in the region face.

Hawkins limited his role in In Ya' Blood to an advisory one, avoiding any effort to turn the production into his own or to have it mirror the more polished work of Roadside. He met with the students daily, joined from time to time by other company members. "The first scenes they wrote were really little TV sitcoms," says Hawkins. "I figured then that we better try to find something that mattered more to the kids.''

The issue of their future and the future of the mountains evolved after careful questioning by Hawkins. Despite a certain flatness in the characterizations, the play has an admirable reality: these aren't just retooled Beverly Hillbillies or Dukes of Hazzard. The young characters lug around their ever-present boomboxes, mimic comics from TV, and crumple beer cans, but they also listen to their elders and the old stories and songs. This is an Appalachia not of bare feet and moonshine, but of satellite dishes, mobile homes, and a desire to find a way in the 1980s.

The play has a powerful effect on its audiences, both young and old. Many parents remembered the dilemma the play poses all too well, and were moved to see their children dealing with

the problem 20 years later.

Working in Whitesburg as a Kentucky Arts Council artist-in-residence gave Hawkins the opportunity to nurture his students as they developed as writers and performers. The following year, Hawkins' class developed an original play, Gift of Choice.

Though closer to Roadside's work — an old woman, her brother, and their tales predominate — the kids work an interesting variation. The old woman's listeners are her grandchildren from Cleveland; they are hearing these stories for the first time and seeing the hills as outsiders. They hear her brother Caleb's lament, "It's the place that brings you back. . . . Somebody who's really from here could live anywhere else and they'd still want to be here, as bad as it is."

Hawkins is a cautious teacher, encouraging the students to work up the material on their own. He told stu­dent Robert Engle, who played the grandfather in In Ya' Blood, to "watch the old folks. Take notes. See how they hold their hands."

Roadside's caution and care produce enduring results, whether of a strong, unsentimental characterization by a high school student or of a theater company with surprising long-range goals. The NEA grant will enable Roadside to continue its own educational efforts and to maintain a connection with its cultural and historical training — the older storytellers, musicians, and the churches.

Roadside will "continue to work with young audiences and in educational settings, trying to find different ways to do that," maintains Cocke. "It would be a mistake to think we've got it all figured out. We as a community, and as a region, face tremendous problems. Our work welcomes those who face similar difficulties. Working with kids is one of the most optimistic places that we know to meet such a challenge."

Once thought of as hippies — albeit local hippies — Appalshop and Roadside now hold a more responsible position in the community. The two have become major local employers and cultural resources. In choosing to stay behind, Roadside has found a measure of unity, strength, and even light.

In one of Roadside's productions, an ensemble sings, warning of the dangers of Mammon:

You can lose your very soul

Living in the Cities of Gold. . .

Won't you listen to the music. . .

They're the songs of fathers and mothers

Aren't you glad they're still here.

And in In Ya' Blood an old man says, "I believe that these trees understand me and they listen better than most people. You probably think I'm a crazy ole coot, talking to trees and all, but I think that the spirit of this place is alive, and more real than we'll ever know."

Excerpt of In Ya' Blood

By students of Whitesburg High School


The following excerpts are from the play written by Whitesburg High School students. The lead character, Jon, seeks counsel from his grandfather, who lives alone back in the mountains.

Later, with the old man's permission, Jon and his friends camp overnight on the grandfather's land and continue discussing their futures. In the final scene, Jon has made his decision and announces it in his high school graduation speech.


GRANDPA: What's on your mind Jon? You look like you're about ready to bust with something but you're keeping it all inside.

JON: Oh nothing. Just thinking about graduation and all.

GRANDPA: Come on, boy. I know better than that. You might be too big for me to get after you with a hickory switch but you won't ever be too big for my foot. Now what's bothering you?

JON: I don't really know where to start.

GRANDPA: Just jump in anywhere, boy. Old Regular Baptists been doing it and getting away with it for years.

JON: (laughs) It's really nothing, I guess. I had a fight with Brenda the other night at a party about what I was going to do after graduation.

GRANDPA: That's not unusual, is it?

JON: No, I guess not. We've already made up again. It's just that I really don't know what I want to do. I ''love" Brenda but I don't want to marry her right now and get a job and everything.

I feel like I really need to do something with my life. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that you haven't or that Ray won't — it's just, I don't know if the mines are for me.

Graduation has made me think about a lot of stuff I didn't want to, or didn't have to before now. It's just, you know, easy to be in high school. Nobody really expects you to do anything but graduate. But when you get out it's like people say, "You're an adult now so you've got to be something!" It's not that they put pressure on me as much as it is me putting pressure on myself. It's like I have to prove to myself that I'm just as good as anybody else, partly because I come from the mountains I guess people think we're all stupid. I don't know. I just get to thinking sometimes and wishing I was somebody else or that I was someplace else. I mean, well, you know, like I was a hero in a movie or something. One of those guys who never did anything wrong and always knew who he was and where he was going. I just want to be something, and I don't even know what yet. I want to do good and make . . . people proud of me.

GRANDPA: You're going in the right direction, son. At least you know that it's more important to suit yourself than somebody else. I remember Daddy told me once that you've got to think about things long enough to figure 'em out, do what you have to and then quit worrying about it. So don't worry yourself so much, son. Just figure out what's right for you, then go ahead and do it. (Short pause.)

I can't solve your problems for you but I don't care a bit to listen to 'em and help you try and sort them out.

JON: Yeah, I know. Thanks Pap.

GRANDPA: You're welcome. Now, I've got to go feed my dogs. You gonna stay around for supper or go home? (Grandpa gets up.)

JON: I'll probably sit here for a few minutes and then go on home. Morn's more than likely waiting dinner for me.

GRANDPA: All right then. I'll see you tomorrow. (Grandpa exits. Jon sits, staring at the floor for a time.)

JON: It seems like I have two choices. I can stay home, get a job, maybe I can find one outside of the mines, and get married someday. Or I can try and go to college and get a education that'll help me get a better job.

I'm scared to stay home and not try but I'm scared to go to school because it's so different than what I'm used to.

No matter what choice I make I'm going to be hurting somebody.



(Subdued lighting giving the atmosphere of a camp fire. Old man enters from stage left.)

GRANDPA: This land here has been in my family since my family first came into this country, and that was after they all got run out of Ireland.

People ask me sometimes, they say, "Old man, why don't you just get rid of that old hill? It's so steep and rocky it couldn't be good for nothing!"

I smile at 'em and nod my head; treat 'em like children you know. Cause that's what they are when it comes to understanding the way I feel about this old homeplace.

Ya see there's a great secret to this land. It's got its own special ways, and unless you're a part of it you'll never catch on. Like farming, fer instance. On the flat land when you dig your taters up you gotta dig the whole hill and row. But down here, we just plant that row up and down the hillside. When it comes time to harvest, all you gotta do is dig a hole at the bottom of the row, throw your burlap sack under there and they all come tumblin' down. (Wink)

These young fellers like to come up here where they can be off to themselves and whoop and holler and let off a little steam.

But I come up here to think. And I believe that these kids do too whether they'll admit it or not. I believe that these trees understand me and they listen better than most people. You probably think I'm a crazy ale coot, talking to trees and all but I think that the spirit of this place is alive, and more real than we'll ever know.

My Grandpap sold off all the timber back in 1912; cut down every last tree except for one big yeller poplar back on top of the ridge. I don't know why they left it, maybe just for a reminder of how things could have been.

I don't know when Pap sold off the mineral rights but they've got a little piece of paper now saying that he did.

They've been after me for 15 years now to let 'em strip mine this old place. Keep telling me about all the money I could make and the big fancy things I could buy with it.

Whenever I get a little too tempted, I come up here. This place makes a body think and if you listen real close it can help you find answers. . . (Old man exits stage left, lights go down.)

MARK: The job scene around here really sucks.

JON: Now hold on a minute. I don't agree. I think we're missing something here. Making a lot of money is not the most important thing in life. What about liking the place you live in, and your family, and being at home, and . . .

STEVE: It's kinda hard when you're starvin' to death.

JON: I'm serious. Around here we know people. We have relatives and we can go just about anywhere we want without having to worry about getting mugged or raped.

LORI: It's not that bad in the cities, Jon. We have just as much violence and probably more going on right around here. Every boy I know and half the girls grow up learning how to fight. And they enjoy it!

RAY: But around here we know who our enemies are.

CHRIS: And that makes you feel better?

RAY: Well sure. At least better than I would if I didn't know who I could trust and who I couldn't turn my back on.

CHRIS: You all sound like you're talking about a war or something. I know that people's families around here take up for one another, but . . .

LORI: They do more than take up for one another. Some people would fight you for 50 years just because their cousin had an argument with you.

CHRIS: But isn't that kind of bad? If somebody in your family doesn't like someone else how do you treat that other person?

STEVE: That's just it. You don't. If one member of a family gets mad at you they're all mad.

RAY: Well I'd still rather live around here a lot more'n I would someplace where it's so crowded you can't even go out in the backyard to pee without somebody calling the cops on you for indecent exposure.

JON: And around here we're all pretty much free to do what we want. We don't have to keep up with the Joneses. We can be our own selves without being condemned.

MARK: You know the worst thing about this place? It's dry. (laugh, silence.)


FINAL SCENE: Graduation

JON: I came here tonight with two speeches prepared. The first speech was a traditional one, the kind you always hear at graduation ceremonies. I wrote about the brightness of our futures, about how we would slay the dragons before us, rescue fair princesses and become heroes on our way through life.

It is a fine speech, probably the best I've ever written. You would have enjoyed it. We could have all left here tonight knowing that we are safe and the world is good.

In a way I hate not to read that speech to you. But as a friend I know says, "You've got to suit your own mind!' The second speech I wrote suits my own mind.

There are so many paths before us, and each of them seems darker than the one before.

Our fear at leaving does not come from a lack of drive or the threat of having to work for ourselves. Our fear comes from not knowing what lies beyond the boundaries we live in.

On TV and in magazines we see the way people live in other parts of the country. In a way it seems so different from what we know; different, exotic and beckoning. To live beside the ocean, to eat at fine restaurants every night, to have everything that exists and some things we'll never even see if we stay here.

But we all know that life, or a place, is never the same as what it seems to be. How many movies, and books about hillbillies really remind us of ourselves?

Leaving this time and this place is not going to be easy. We will never really leave it all. No matter where we go we'll take a part of our home, these mountains, with us. Our parents and their parents before them drew strength from these hills and loved them for it.

This place and all its people flow through us and around us and we'll carry it and them with us to wherever we must go. If we stay at home here we will be thankful for the opportunity and accept it as a gift. If we are forced to leave our home because we can't find a job or for some other reason then we will go and take at least a little part of our home with us, inside of us, because . . . IT IS IN OUR BLOOD.