Dudley Cocke recounts what it’s like to be part of a white, rural, and working class theater company at a national multi-cultural festival at Dartmouth College.
In January, 1992, in the spirit of multi-culturalism and cultural sharing, Roadside traveled from its home in the rural Appalachian coalfields to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire to join a diverse group of performing artists for a festival. The Dartmouth American Festival’s kick-off event was an evening reception for visiting artists, student leaders, and sponsoring faculty. Refreshments in hand, guests coalesced into animated groups.
As I recall, it was the Native American students who first proudly led the visiting Oklahoma Indian Theater and Dance Company to an intimate gathering at their Native American House. Soon after, New Orleans’ Junebug Productions left for a dinner in their honor hosted by Dartmouth’s Black Caucus. Next, Nicaraguan dancer Alan Bolt and California’s El Teatro de la Esperanza exited with members of MEChA and La Alianza Latina. Roadside’s artists noticed that the reception was thinning out, and when Hillel gathered up A Traveling Jewish Theater and left for the Roth Center for Jewish Life, we experienced that sinking feeling, familiar to every child, of not being picked. Practically alone now at the once buzzing party, there was nothing for the company to do but say goodnight to a few lingering faculty members and shuffle back to the Hanover Inn, where a company meeting was called. The meeting had one agenda item: Who on this campus is like us; specifically – rural, working class, and white?
As planned, the next morning Roadside members fanned out to look for an answer. That answer appeared while watching the building and grounds crews clear new fallen snow and empty garbage; while looking through the small window into the college cafeteria’s kitchen; while talking to the receptionist, secretaries, and assistant administrators of the Hopkins Arts Center. Although these Arts Center assistants produced scores of campus arts events each year, they admitted that they never attended them. So it was this assortment of administrative support staff, building maintenance personnel, groundskeepers, and food service workers who became Roadside’s adopted host committee.
We began getting to know one another through storytelling sessions, sitting around in pleasant rooms, each person taking a turn telling a story about Dartmouth. Our new hosts knew an awful lot of stories about Dartmouth, some scandalous and many hysterically funny – the stuff of drama. Not only did they have unique vantage points from which to observe the lighter side of campus life, but it was not unusual for any one of them to be the second or third generation member of their family to work at the college – and those family stories had definitely been passed down! We were mesmerized by their tales. We wanted these folks (and their stories) to go with us to as many of the festival workshops, seminars, classroom lectures, and performances as their work-release schedules would allow. It was an eye-popper for students and faculty alike when we arrived with our posse for, say, the interdepartmental seminar on “Cultural Appropriation and First Voice.”
Our new friends had mentioned that Dartmouth presently had the wealthiest student body in the U.S., and it wasn’t long before a few students – tenuously at first – started to join our group’s storytelling sessions. First one student, then another – each surprised not to be alone – told of leading double lives, detailing their ever-more elaborate stratagems to explain to their classmates, and especially to their best friends, why they couldn’t go on the ski trip this coming weekend or down to the Boston party the week after. Their elaborate subterfuges had everyone in our group by turns in stitches and wet-eyed. For two weeks, a part of the working class at Dartmouth College became a family, mingling and exchanging feelings and thoughts with the other Festival participants.