Higher Ground in Harlan County, a community arts organization, has a new play out titled: "Needlework". It brings to attention the very controversial topic of needle exchanges, but in a soft, humorous, and yet informative way.
When I first joined Higher Ground, I was unsure what to expect. They had just began rehearsing the newest play, Needlework, and I was quickly pulled into the group as if I had always been there. While the actors in the group are very different in their personal lives, on stage they perform as a single unit with one purpose- to tell their story. The original play was written by Robert Gipe and the Higher Ground cast, with encouragement from health professionals in the area. The main purpose of this play is to encourage discussion and bring this matter into public areas for discussion by all.
The story of Needlework begins with the introduction to the Lady-slipper Lounge, named for the beautiful mountain flower. This is a place that people of the area go to as an escape from their less than happy home lives or just to relax and craft with others. From taxidermy to fabric arts, the ladies relax and talk amongst themselves, retelling funny as well as horrifying local stories from their lives. The leader is a strong mountain woman named "Betty", played by Elana Scopa Forson. Elana’s authentic southern style and sass only makes her character richer and succeeds in bringing “Betty” to life. A mother and well known community figure, "Betty" relates her own family’s trials and tragedies to IV drug epidemic. The softly interjected humor throughout her stories perfectly offsets the horror and pain of the stories that "Betty" relates to the audience.
When "Betty's" grand-daughter, Vidalia, played by Cheyenne Coogle, walks on stage to relate her mother’s addiction and its impact upon her life, the entire room falls silent. The young girl tells her memories of growing up with a mother addicted to IV drugs and by the end of her dialogue, not a dry eye was left in the audience. The tale, told from a child's point of view, is the most heartbreaking and raw dialogue in the play.
Now, I won't give away the ending but it is honestly a hold-your-breath, watch-and-see type of ending, with a small spark of surprise mixed in. The show draws you in and you feel as if you are personally sitting at the lounge with these people listening to their stories and sharing their sorrow and joy. As the lights brighten and the spell is lifted, the audience is invited to discuss the play and topics raised. An authority in the field of addiction treatment takes the stage to begin a round table discussion where all are encouraged to participate. Questions are answered, opinions voiced, and information is shared; truly a remarkable ending.
One of the most interesting things I discovered about the play, was how it came to be; its creation was truly unique.
This play is a collaboration and retelling of stories collected from the area from local, everyday folks. The members set out and ask a wide assortment of people in the community if they had any stories they'd like to share concerning this subject. The various stories were then changed slightly (to protect privacy) and woven together by the Higher Ground script committee in a touching and mesmerizing mountain tale of family, addiction and one mother’s attempt at fixing a problem. Music throughout the play was performed by the local band, Kudzu Killers. Their original songs add to the mood and lend to the emotions that swirl about the theater. No matter if you are entirely against a needle exchange program, a strong supporter, or never heard of the subject; it will most certainly open your eyes to the topic.
written by Marsha Griffey, Higher Ground cast member since 2017
Well we've been rather busy lately. We've had many changes since our last post and we're really excited to share some new projects with you all. We've recently updated our website thanks to our student worker Marsha. [Woot, Marsha!]. We'll be posting a series of new blogs about various projects so be sure to check back. We also updated our projects section to reflect our newest theater project "Needlework" and two new big projects: the Community Engagement Project and the Spark Community Events. Be sure to check those out.
Summer is in full swing in southeastern Kentucky and we've been hard at work. In June, Higher Ground staff Alexia Ault, Devyn Creech, Marissa Rutherford and Maria Lewis taught the storytelling track at the Cowan Creek Music School. We had a wonderful group of students from across Letcher County as well as a few from Frankfort, New York, and even England. The storytelling students spent much of the week telling supernatural stories from Eastern Kentucky. On Friday they presented Headless Annie, a short scene about three versions of a popular Harlan County ghost story. We were honored to work with the music school and get to know so many talented storytellers.
We've also been hard at work on new Shew Buddy episodes. In May we presented The Dot Show, stories about innovators and change-makers in our community based on the character, Dot, from Find a Way. In June we presented The Veteran Show, a compilation of stories about patriotism, veterans, and the debt we owe those in service. This show was inspired by Higher Ground cast member, Rutland Melton. Throughout the episode Rutland shares his own experience. These episodes are now available on iTunes.
July and August are going to be just as busy and we are so excited for all our new projects. In July we will be co-hosting the Hurricane Gap Community Theater Institute with Cowan Creek Community Theater Group. The institute will be a week long skill-sharing opportunity for community performance theater groups and individuals from across the Central Appalachia region. In August we will be co-hosting the Harlan County Rural Urban Exchange. Check back for more information about each of these upcoming projects.
Shew Buddy! Higher Ground Radio is live. We aired our first two episodes, Stay, Stay, Stay Part I and II, in March and two more episodes, Mamaws & Papaws Part I and II, in April. These first episodes were definitely a labor of love for everyone involved. Although most of the staff have experience with storytelling and acting, many of us have never produced radio-quality audio. Learning the equipment, the software, and basic dos and don'ts of recording took quite a while but all that hard work has paid off.
The premise behind Shew Buddy! was to create a radio program that relied on the Higher Ground model of storytelling. Each episode of Shew Buddy would use monologues and dialogues from past plays, interviews with actors who played those characters, new oral histories collected specifically for the show, songs that reinforce the themes of the stories, and poetry readings by local authors. We knew our first show had to be something really special, something close to our hearts. One theme that we've all struggled with is whether to stay in Appalachia or leave.
Shew Buddy! is produced by a team of next generation leaders from Harlan County, Kentucky. Most of the staff are currently enrolled in college at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. Being a young person in Appalachia is definitely not easy. Seems like our region, our people have seen one devastation after another; poverty, mining accidents, natural disasters, drug abuse, unemployment, chronic illness. With so much stacked against you, why wouldn't you leave? Many people in our community urge young people to leave as soon as they can: go to Richmond, go to Lexington, go to Knoxville, anywhere but here. Staying here isn't easy, but for many of us it's worth it. We stay for our families. We stay for our community, our neighbors. We stay to create change. We stay to make a difference. We stay to wake up and go to sleep looking at those mountains. We stay because this place is part of who we are.
That's the story of the first two episodes of Shew Buddy! "Stay, Stay, Stay" is our story, the story we live every day. In many ways the next two episodes is the story of why we stay. For many young people, we stay to be near our family. As the cast and crew will tell you, Higher Ground is family. Higher Ground makes it possible for us to stay.
If you haven't listened to Shew Buddy! you can download the first four episodes on iTunes. We hope you enjoy our stories. And don't forget that you can listen live. Shew Buddy! airs at 6pm on the second Wednesday of every month on WMMT 88.7 FM in Whitesburg, Kentucky.
Welcome to our new website! After fifteen years we decided it was time to create our own website to share our story. This website was created for past Higher Ground members, current members, academics, Harlan County residents, and fans. It is our plan to use this site to update you all about all of our projects.
2016 is going to be a big year for Higher Ground. We have lots of awesome projects in the works and are really excited to share them with you all. So check back regularly and we'll update you on what's going on in our region.