"Whitesburg, Kentucky -- A coalmining town with all the disadvantages that brings. Unemployment hoovers at 20%; so does the high school drop out rate; and the standard of living never strays far from the poverty line. Most people here barely have enough for the luxuries, let alone the necessities of life." MacNeil Lehrer News Hour
For the older members of Roadside Theater’s ensemble, this quote resonates in ways that the NewsHour probably didn’t imagine.
Born in the late 1940’s, we were educated in substandard public schools where we were told that our parents did not speak or live correctly, and that if we were ever going to amount to anything in this life, we would have to change everything about ourselves, leave the mountains, and never look back.
The national media, where we regularly saw shameful hillbilly stereotypes of ourselves, emphatically affirmed this message.
By the late 1960’s, we came of age, and the economy was so depressed that one in every five Appalachians had left the region to find work. Giant heavy equipment and weak or nonexistent land reclamation laws were making strip mining profitable, so in every coal county mountains were torn apart.
Nationally, the Vietnam War was being fought by young people who did not have the opportunity to get a college deferment.
Back home, there was a "War on Poverty" being waged by the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity. We opened Life Magazine and saw ourselves, our friends and our neighbors depicted as raggedy, shack-dwelling, forlorn looking people.
It was with these realities that high school students walked in off the streets of Whitesburg, Kentucky in 1969 to participate in a "War on Poverty" job training program that promised to train them for television and film careers.
The only trouble was there was no film or television industry in the mountains. The kids liked the equipment anyway and started taking pictures of what was around them -- a hog butchering, the birth of twins assisted by a mid-wife, footwashing at the Old Regular Baptist Church.
In these films they made a discovery: they could make their own pictures, in their own image, and these pictures and the stories they told held more substance and truth than those in the national media. It was a profoundly empowering moment.
In 1971 the government discontinued its media training program, but the kids kept the equipment, and began raising money to continue the work on their own. They founded Appalshop.
Young people from across the region heard about Appalshop and came to Whitesburg to see what was going on. Several thought, if we can use film and video to tell our stories, why not also use theater? That’s how Roadside Theater began.
In some ways, central Appalachia is a bell wether of the contemporary social, political, and economic problems of the U.S.
Beginning in 1890, we have witnessed the vast environmental destruction perpetuated by absentee corporations, the ways race and class are used as wedges to separate diverse people from their common interests, and how cultural stereotypes corrode a people’s self-confidence and creativity.
These issues are abiding undercurrents in our plays, a subtext we share with our community partners across the country.