Photos by Carrie Billett, Daniel Robinson, & Robert Gipe.
Higher Ground’s eighth play, Perfect Buckets, was commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Cockayne Fund to be performed at the SFA conference in Oxford, Mississippi on October 26th. Our charge from the SFA was to create a short play that dramatized the relationship between food and labor in the mountains. Perfect Bucketsgrew out of interviews collected the spring, summer, and fall of 2019 and included music by the Kudzu Killers, Ryland Pope, and the cast. The play focuses on social media, potlucks, labor activism, and their effects on community cohesion. The play also includes stories based on the miners blockade that took place in Harlan in Summer 2019.
The Blackjewel blockade was a national news story during the summer of 2019, and took place less than a mile from Higher Ground’s home theater. Blackjewel LLC, one of the largest coal producers in the nation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early July 2019, leaving hundreds of its Kentucky employees with cold checks. Following the bankruptcy, a group of former Blackjewel employees blocked a train that was attempting to haul coal from one of the company’s Harlan County mines. For almost two months, the miners and their families blocked the tracks, determined to stop any coal moving from the Blackjewel mines until they received what they were owed. In September, after more than two months camped out on the tracks, the former employees ended their protests. The Blackjewel families are now pursuing justice through the courts. On October 2nd, an attorney representing the coal company submitted a proposal to a West Virginia bankruptcy court that could provide Blackjewel LLC with about $5.5 million to pay its former Kentucky employees. Justice for the miners and their families has been slow in coming.
Higher Ground had to rush to integrate the blockade into Perfect Buckets. We would have liked to have spent more time on the writing and worked more closely with the miners and their families than we did. However, former cast member Jennifer McDaniels helped Higher Ground take part in an online chat group with some of the families participating in the blockade, and we were able to organize a preview performance in Cumberland that included a talkback session with many of those involved in the blockade. The script also left a space open for updates as the story unfolded while we were performing the piece.
Perfect Buckets takes its name from something Harlan restaurant owner Joyce Cheng said during her interview about the blockade. Cheng ran fifty miles raising money for the miners and their families, and did so, coincidentally, at almost the same time as a federal ICE raid shut down a Mississippi chicken processing plant and deported over 300 of its workers. When we asked Cheng, an immigrant from China who is much beloved in the community but has endured unkind treatment by a sorry few how she kept her heart in the right place said, “You have to see the good in people and not just the bad. Even perfect buckets have a crack.”
We carried Cheng’s message and the story of the Blackjewel blockade to Mississippi and shared it with an audience of 300 chefs, food writers, and others involved in the business and culture of Southern food on October 26, 2019 in Oxford. On our return, Higher Ground partnered with the Wrigley Taproom to present the final show of the 2019 run of Higher Ground 8: Perfect Bucketsin Corbin, Kentucky as part of a fundraiser for the Appalachian Food Summit. The Corbin Cornbread Convocation, as the Corbin event is called, took place November 9, 2019 at the Wrigley Taproom and at the Second and Main event center, in downtown Corbin. The Appalachian Food Summit is a community of writers, scholars, restaurateurs, farmers, producers, chefs and others who honor the past, celebrate the present and support a sustainable future for Appalachia. The Cornbread Convocation explored the dynamic between food and community stories with a progressive dinner, starting at The Wrigley Taproom, then journeying down Corbin's Main Street to experience Perfect Buckets. As SFA had done in Oxford, chef Kristin M Smith created a menu inspired by scenes from the production.
By the time we performed Perfect Buckets in Corbin, we had secured the immediate future of Higher Ground, thanks to a new partnership with Brook and Pam Smith and the gift they made to Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in support of Higher Ground. The Smiths’ gift will support a new production in the Spring of 2021 and allowed us to hire new Higher Ground faculty. Those faculty start work in June 2020.
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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