Photos by Chris Jones, Roy Silver, Robert Gipe, and others.
The first Higher Ground play was presented to the community in the fall of 2005. Playwright Jo Carson took the two hundred oral histories Harlan County people gathered and transcribed and wrote the first draft of the script. Carson took the fact that in the mountains we often have floods where water rises fast and covers over whole communities in a matter of hours and used that as a metaphor for the flood of drugs washing over us. A recurring motif in the flood stories we collected is people putting aside their differences to pull one another out of the mud. That burying of grievances to come together to take collective action that happens during a flood became a metaphor for what we needed to do to pull ourselves out of the mire of substance abuse.
During the spring, summer, and fall of 2005 community members led by Theresa Osborne, Connie Owens, Ann Schertz, and Robert Gipe went back and forth with Carson and director Jerry Stropnicky to put together the script for the first Higher Ground play. By the time we began to recruit a cast for that first play in the summer of 2005, over a thousand people had been involved in the overall project—the community photography project, the tile mosaic mural projects, and the story gathering. We were able to recruit eighty people to be inthe first play. Some of the cast were battling substance abuse. All had lost somebody close to them who was battling addiction.
We hired professionals to help us put together the first Higher Ground play, artists who were used to working with non-professionals. We worked with artists who knew how to play to our strengths as storytellers and musicians and could bring professional production values to our lighting, choreography, set design, and acting.
Jerry Stropnicky, the director of the first two Higher Ground plays, set the black box theater on the SKCTC Cumberland campus up in the round. Six stages were interspersed with the audience. Cast members who weren’t involved with a scene sat with the rest of the audience, so the play seemed to come from the community.
Ann Schertz, an ethnomusicologist and professor of music at Southeast, was Higher Ground’s music director through the first five plays. For the original Higher Ground production, she brought together white and African-American sacred music traditions, two bluegrass bands; empowered local songwriters; and wove together musicians of all ages.
One production number, called “Pain,” comes during a scene in which a doctor is throwing out painkiller prescriptions willy-nilly. Our choreographer, Kevin Iega Jeff, had the whole cast stagger around the stage like drug zombies and shuttle moneybags to the doctor as he flung prescriptions in the air while we sang the song. A local doctor had recently been convicted for doing exactly what we were portraying on stage. And Al Nunez, the actor playing the doctor, was himself a doctor in the community.
Opening night, as we went into that scene, people in the audience whispered the name of the convicted doctor. The cast feared nobody would come back for act two. But they came back. And they kept coming back. The first nine Higher Ground shows were sold out after the first night. Nearly two thousand people in an Appalachian coalfield county of 25,000 came to see an OxyContin musical put on with a cast of drug addicts and ex-cons, coal miners and teachers, kids and old people, black people and white people.
In 2006, we did another run of the first Higher Ground play in the Cumberland black box. We also performed in Pikeville for an ARC governors conference and addiction response conferences in Johnson City, TN and Charleston, WV. We also took a delegation of fifteen cast members to meet with a representative of the Steele-Reese Foundation and wrote a proposal that led to funding for another two Higher Ground plays, Playing With Fireand Talking Dirt, which are the subject of the next chapters.
Other posts in Higher Ground: A History.
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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