Thirty-three years ago, Roadside Theater’s founding artists asked: Can a theater that taps local life at its source appeal to a variety of people at home and away? How would such a theater fare against the increasingly strong waves of homogenization generated by commercial art with its mass advertising engines? And how would such a theater do at home in the face of the large investment in a single story about Appalachia promoted by the absentee energy conglomerates that have controlled the coalfield economy for the past 100 years?
Our first full-length play, Red Fox/Second Hangin’ (1976), went right at these questions as it pitted the official written history of the region’s first coal boom against the people’s oral history. For the first year or so, when Red Fox toured to Appalachian community centers or was performed in the theater’s revival tent pitched on a wide place in a small community, it was not unusual for members of the audience to interrupt the performance with a new historical fact or a relevant story. Tough on the actors, it made for good drama. When Red Fox eventually went off-Broadway and then on to tour the United States, the chance to experience a people’s history was what unfailingly drew a crowd.
In addition to finding and telling our own story, we decided to create plays that intentionally put the Appalachian story in play with the stories of other places and people. We set about creating dramas with professional African American artists in Louisiana and Mississippi; Puerto Rican and Dominican actors and jazz musicians in the Bronx; Mexican and Mien artists in Richmond, California; and traditional Native American storytellers, singers, and dancers in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.
In the process, Roadside Theater has created 54 plays, touring its original work across 43 states and parts of Europe. Unfortunately, we are living in a time when the audience for professional theater is elite (80% are white and from the wealthiest 15% of Americans), and despite the U.S. theater’s earnest longing for excellence, excellence cannot rise upon such a thin social base. Roadside has figured out how to attract a diverse theater audience which looks like America, and we now know that there are potentially millions of people waiting to be invited to participate. However, theaters, by and large, lack the will and discipline to reach for this popular audience.
A Durable Pluralism
Today, my hope to lead a fulfilling life in a small Appalachian coalmining town is linked to the fortunes of people in villages, towns, and cities around the globe. For the past several decades, U.S. society has been in massive denial about its symbiotic relationship to the natural world and to its brothers and sisters who walk upon it; against all logic and fact, we have convinced ourselves that money, power, and privilege can buy us a fate different than the rest of humanity. Now our fantasy is becoming our nightmare.
What is the role of U.S. theater in a time when the government has declared a global war on terror? Roadside’s answer: artists and others who work intentionally with culture can help build a durable pluralism as the cornerstone of world peace. I hope that those with wealth and power – the gilded illusion’s progenitors and most faithful adherents – will see their error and without delay join us in building a pluralism based on universal human rights. Because we are presently the most culturally diverse nation on earth, the United States has the opportunity – and, I would argue, because of our great military power, the responsibility – to pioneer intercultural dialogue.
Roadside has learned that theater has a special capacity for such dialogue. In its pursuit of meaning, relevance, and beauty, the theater’s living breath can build bridges of empathy and understanding across the boundaries that separate people, regions, and nation.