Photos by Oakley Fugate, Robert Gipe, and Mountain Tech Media.
As Higher Ground brought people together to depict our community’s capacity for transformation, we have been asked to be more actively engaged in that transformation. Over the years, Higher Ground staff has been involved in renovation of historic buildings, downtown and tourism development, arts education, hospitality and construction workforce development, and branding efforts. In 2017, we grouped that community development work under an umbrella called first the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project, and later the Mountain Training Network. Since 2017, SKCTC Appalachian Program staff managed over a million dollars in downtown development projects and kept Higher Ground going essentially as volunteers.
In 2017, USAP, a coalition of community groups working in Letcher County to reduce the harm caused by needle drug use, contracted with Higher Ground to create a portable, original drama to raise discussion of needle exchanges. Needle Work is the play Higher Ground created for USAP. Needle Workexamines needle exchanges, where substance abusers can exchange dirty syringes for clean ones without fear of legal consequences, as a way of stemming the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDs and helping addicts get into recovery. The play centers on a mountain woman—Sweet Betty, a character in Find A Way and Life Is Like A Vapor—who has lost a daughter to drug abuse, and starts a needle exchange out of her home. Her friends are shocked; dramatic behavior ensues. There are comic moments along the way, and songs are sung, and stories light and heavy are told that reflect the humor and beauty in our collective struggle to find our way through difficult circumstances.
Higher Ground’s plan was to perform the play twice, once in Whitesburg and once in Cumberland. After these two performances, our plan was to focus on the community development work that was part of the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project. The development work was preceded by an extensive and well-received community strategic planning process in Harlan County, and expanded to include partners and projects throughout Eastern Kentucky. What we did not plan on is that the coalition that sponsored Needle Workcreated opportunities for Higher Ground to perform Needle Workat schools, health care centers, and community gatherings throughout Eastern Kentucky. Nor did we anticipate public health agencies in Southwest Virginia contracting with us to perform the play in Wise and Dickenson counties.
In the twenty years since the introduction of OxyContin, the most notorious and dangerous of the synthetic opioids, we have learned a great deal about how to treat addiction, and as importantly, addicts. We have learned new levels of compassion and patience. We have diversified the range of treatment facilities and programs addressing the crisis, and developed skilled and experienced leadership who understand what it takes to help addicts reclaim healthier, happier lives. That leadership asked Higher Ground to participate in their work, to perform Needle Work as part of engaging our communities in new ways of thinking about recovery.
Never in the history of Higher Ground had we felt the sense of responsibility coming from the field that is actively engaged with an issue raised in one of our plays. And so we continued to take on contracts to perform Needle Work in communities throughout the region. When the production closed, I made the following post on social media:
On Wednesday April 3, 2019, Higher Ground gave two performances of Needle Work in Nelsonville, Ohio in the Stuart Opera House. These were the last two scheduled performances. The play, which was created from interviews conducted in Letcher and Harlan counties, included original music from Harlan’s Kudzu Killers and discussed the essential humanity of addicts and whether they are worthy of the concern and sympathy of our communities and how that concern and sympathy might best be expressed. Higher Ground performed Needle Work in Whitesburg, Cumberland, Louisa, Pikeville, Berea, and Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky, and Wise and Clintwood in Virginia, in addition to the two shows in Nelsonville.
There are many people and organizations who deserve our gratitude for their support of the production of Needle Work. A few of them are Danielle King, Van Breeding, Sue Cantrell, Maria Lewis, Chris Green, Matt Brown, Jenna Myer, the Appalachian Media Institute, The Chorus Foundation, the Appalachian Funders Network, LENOWISCO Health District, and USAP, the organization in Letcher County that originally commissioned Needle Work.
Our first performances took place in the fall of 2017. Rehearsals began months before. And the writing process began months before that. Needle Work has been both the hardest play Higher Ground has had to perform, and the play that has been in production the longest. If it weren’t for the seriousness of the issue and the goodness of the people who invited us to come to their communities to present the work, we would have laid Needle Work to rest long ago.
But we didn’t. Higher Ground kept going where we were invited. So I’d like to thank these folk, who performed Needle Work in one or more of its ten performances: Adam Brock, Adeline Allison, Alex Hamm, Alexia Ault, Andrew Saylor, Ashley Bledsoe, Bennie Massey, Brianna Perez, Cade Pennington, Carrie Billett, Cassidy Wright, Cheyenne Coogle, Cindy Brock, Cindy Parker Allison, Devyn Creech, Elana Scopa Forson, Elizabeth Mona Lisa Floyd, Frank Goodwyn, Greg Hollins, Joy Pennington, Kristie Rodgers, Kyle Allison, Logan Turner, Mariah Farmer, Marsha Griffey, Megan Duff, Nick Cornett, Rick Brock, Rodion Svynarenko, Ronnie Walker, Rut Melton, Sandra Goodwyn, Shane Vanover, Shaylan Clark, Shyla Blevins, Tara Smith Frehling, Teresa Mimes, Tyler Smith, and Whitney Barger. I have so much respect for you, and so much appreciation of your talent, heart, and commitment.
In the spring of 2019, Higher Ground began work on its next production, a play about food and labor, focusing on the role of the soup bean in Appalachian culture. The play, Perfect Buckets, was commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance, and debuted at SFA’s conference in Oxford, Mississippi in late October 2019.
Chapter 1: 2001-2005. A Lot of Listening & A Grant Proposal.
Chapter 2: 2005-2008. Higher Ground Is Born.
Chapter 3: 2008-2009. Playing With Fire
Chapter 4: 2010-2011. Talking Dirt
Chapter 5: 2012-2013. Introduction to the Foglights years
Chapter 6: Spring 2013. Solving For X
Chapter 7: Summer 2013. Summer of Fog
Chapter 8: Fall 2013. Foglights Performed
Chapter 9: 2014 -2015. Find A Way
Chapter 10: 2015 & 2017. It's Good 2 Be Young In The Mountains 1 & 2
Chapter 11: 2016-2017. Hurricane Gap, Shew Buddy!, & Life Is Like A Vapor.
Chapter 12: 2017 -2018. Needle Work & the Southeast Kentucky Revitalization Project
Chapter 13: 2019. Perfect Buckets
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