Photos by Chris Jones, Dwane Herald, Stephanie Cole, Network of Ensemble Theaters, Robert Gipe, and others.
If the first play, Higher Ground, was our “water play,” and Playing With Fire was our “fire play,” the third play, Talking Dirt, was our “earth play.” With Talking Dirt, we got into what we thought would be touchy territory—talking about land use and the damage done to the land by coal mining. The play is centered on how we talk to each other. We asked ourselves why we tell so many of some types of stories—gossipy ones, for example—and so few of some other types—stories about the land and labor and sexism and racism.
For Talking Dirt, we collected stories examining how people have resolved the question of whether to stay here or to move away. We collected stories about lost communities, in particular the predominantly African American community of Georgetown. We gathered stories from members of the East Kentucky Social Club, a predominantly African American organization in Lynch with chapters in cities across the United States. We researched the history of an integrated R&B band, Action United, that was active in Harlan in the late 1960s. We looked at the stories of women coal miners and stories of young people who have felt pushed out of the community.
With Talking Dirt, we worked with a new production team, Carpetbag Theater out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a new director—Robert Martin from Rockcastle County, Kentucky. By the time we wrote Talking Dirt, the level of trust within the cast and the level of commitment to the process had grown. We wrote and re-wrote the script for the third play, the script that dealt with coal, soft pedaling and softening blows so as not to drive people out of the cast, until a cast member whose living depended on the coal industry said the script was too weak, too mealy-mouthed in talking about what is going on here. So we included a scene about a young woman who has won a scholarship, and the community wants her to leave so she can fulfill her potential. But the young woman wants to stay, make a difference, save the land, “get mixed up in things.” She is a treehugger, and gets in an argument with her best friend’s fiancé, a boy who goes straight to the mines after high school and operates a bulldozer on a strip job. He tells Beth she is not the only one who cares about the mountains, to which she responds “then get down off the dozer, Roger.”
The character Roger responds with words taken verbatim from something said at one of the script meetings by the aforementioned guy who depends on mining for a living, a man who said he’d have to quit the play if we got too radical, too critical of the industry.
ROGER: You know, Beth, there wasn’t anybody standing there offering me a scholarship when I graduated high school. My high school graduation was my mother crying like I was dead because she was so sure I was leaving and she would never see me again. And she didn’t stop crying until I got that job at the mines. She acted like she won the lottery when I got that job.
[BETH pauses before answering. She knows about not wanting to leave, about being expected to leave.]
BETH: Yeah, but…that don’t make it…that don’t make it right.
ROGER [anger flaring]: What does it make it Beth? Hunh? Does it make it wrong?
Talking Dirt also was where we met Homefry Beanie, and Poptop, a trio of Appalachian outmigrants who spend the whole play trying to get home from Cincinnati for the weekend to attend the wedding of Roger and Julia, who almost miss their own wedding because they fall asleep in their deerstand. Homefry, Beanie and Poptop’s misadventures with ill-fitting tires, faulty drive trains, and unstable hitchhikers add comic relief to a story that is at its core about the dangers lurking when people can’t talk through the challenges that face them.
James grandfather dies and he has to decide whether to sell the land to strip miners or leave his gossipy hometown behind. A feisty rooster gets made into chicken and dumplings. There’s a dance where a version of Action Reunited plays. There are messages in the sorghum foam. There is a production number with women in pajamas shopping at “Megamart” in the middle of the night to avoid having to talk to people.
Talking Dirt premiered in 2011 and was our most ambitious production to date in terms of number of scenes, number of musical numbers, and size of cast. It also set the stage for our next production which was even more ambitious, and saw Higher Ground enter a new era where we weren’t just making plays but also becoming more involved with community development offstage as well.
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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