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