In eight weeks, I’ll pass by air from one contested territory — the Cumberland mountains of southwestern Virginia and east Kentucky, land stolen from eastern Cherokee indigenous peoples and restyled as “Trump Country” in mainstream political narratives — into another, the Lakota nation occupying space in what my white colonist forefathers named “South Dakota.”
This journey will mark the first of three intensive gatherings of the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI), a year-long leadership program for artists, culture bearers and other arts professionals. I am a 2018–19 fellow in this program. ILI, in the words of its co-sponsors at Alternate ROOTS, P’AI Foundation, First Peoples Fund, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, “emphasizes overlapping experiences, shared spaces and mutual accountability — and seeks to challenge dominant social norms while honoring differences of histories, traditions, vocabulary and more.”
As a white Scots-Anglo-Jewish woman joining a majority non-white cohort, I embody both the intercultural complexity and the “dominant social norms” ILI was designed to affirm and contravene. I’m a 5th-generation West Virginian who returned to Appalachia just before the 2016 election cycle. Through my work in community-based arts for social change with Roadside Theater, I investigate the confluence of dramatic narrative (“What is the story we choose to tell onstage?”) and public narrative (as defined by Marshall Ganz, who asks, “What is the story we are called upon to tell about ourselves, our community, and our future?”) in intercultural rural-urban performance. I also work alongside community organizers to discover how arts and culture can drive equitable development in communities with histories of economic exploitation.
Many times in Kentucky I’ve felt self-conscious: of my Northern accent, my blunt feminism, my lack of experience with organizing and nonprofit governance. Seldom, however, have I been isolated by my skin color. Even more rarely have I surrendered the illusory status afforded me by education, relative wealth, access to healthcare, and so-called American “citizenship” by entering indigenous spaces as a supplicant. Yet supplication is what this moment demands of us as white artists and organizers. To lead, we must — humbly, full-heartedly — follow creative organizers of color toward a new mode of encountering Difference which strips us of our weapons, wealth, entitlement, and fragility.
Organizing within the Southeastern mountains, and connecting this creative labor to similar struggles of communities beyond our borders — communities like the indigenous Lakota Sioux I will soon meet in and around Rapid City — is the long work of humanities center Appalshop, my workplace in the east Kentucky coalfields. Appalshop’s theater wing, Roadside, is the offspring of Southern justice movements SNCC and its Free Southern Theater. Roadside emerged as a cohesive activist group when its young ensemble began to use community story circles to make plays that dramatized the lives of poor, working class, and middle class Americans. Today Roadside’s mission is to enlist the power of theater to document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of Appalachia; tell stories the commercial cultural industries don’t tell; challenge stereotypes with Appalachian voices and visions; support communities’ efforts to achieve justice and equity and solve their own problems in their own ways; celebrate cultural diversity as a positive social value; and participate in regional, national, and global dialogue toward these ends.
One tool for this active dialogue is the Crossroads Lab, a new writing, directing, producing, and performance platform I co-founded for first-voice exploration of 21st century Appalachian identity in live performance. The Lab aims to create visible artistic leadership roles for Appalachian women and gender-nonconforming or LGBTQ; documented and undocumented immigrants; people of color, particularly indigenous and Native; people with disabilities; our incarcerated neighbors; those informally educated or sustained by alt-economies; and non-rural ‘Metrolachians’ with affinities for mainstream culture. Among its core questions: what will an Appalachian avant-garde look like? Who will lead its development? And how can a conscious recovery mindset shift conversations about creative organizing for change in Appalachia?
I don’t know whether the Lab will succeed in answering these questions, or whether I can earn the trust of the people with whom I hope to work in solidarity. I do know that such questions are in keeping with Appalshop’s 48-year body of arts and media, a body which reveals an abiding desire for physical, spiritual and economic healing. This desire unites residents of central Appalachia more surely than politics or faith divide us. The citizens of Letcher County (Appalshop’s home in the heart of the 5th Congressional district, among the poorest and sickest in the U.S.) die 10 years sooner than the average American. Our people are disabled at twice the national average. Letcher County is not an outlier. In the 1960s, eastern Kentucky’s unemployment rates were 10–11%; today its average 24-month unemployment rate is 15%. 85% of the poorest counties in the U.S. are rural. Rural communities lead the nation in per capita rates of drug addiction, incarceration, and suicide.
But data alone cannot convey what Letcher Countians have known, bone-deep, from Appalshop’s inception: far from struggling in isolation, we are only one of many populations whose arts and cultural narratives are rooted in a passionate, faith-buoyed generational defiance of obliteration. Like people everywhere, we want to live. We crave the pleasures of communion, agency, and respect. And like people everywhere, we have been sold a battery of falsehoods about how respect is earned, and to whom it is owed. Our survival now depends on our willingness to learn new stories and sing new songs. We cannot hear these, or make ourselves heard, wrapped in flags or hidden behind walls. Yet for many of us, the terror of exposure has trumped the desire to connect, to make ourselves vulnerable by confronting the historical damage we have done, and continue to do, to our sister communities. To tell stories of our shame is to risk feeling (and inflicting) a cauterizing pain. The very poor, already fighting to survive, have precious little assurance they will survive more pain.
For these reasons, my dramaturgy and Roadside’s theory of change treat classism as inextricably linked to racism, transphobia and misogyny, and other forms of systemic oppression. We don’t subscribe to trickle-down cultural economics; we ask “Who’s in the house?” National surveys (including those by the League of American Theatres and Producers and the 1991–1996 Wallace Foundation-sponsored AMS survey) consistently report that American nonprofit theater audiences are more than 80% white and originating from the top 15% of the population in income and education. By contrast, 73% of Roadside’s national audiences have annual incomes under $50,000, and 30% of those earn $20,000 or less a year. Much of my teaching and presenting work (recently on the “Art, Activism & Access” and “Money, Money, Money” panels at the 2017 and 2018 Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conferences; and for the Community Voices lecture series at Virginia Tech’s Institute for Policy and Governance) aims to make visible these intersecting needs in language that resists zero-sum rhetoric by using radical transparency as a resistance strategy. When I announce my gender pronouns, I also disclose my annual salary. To conceal this information would exploit our partners and give the lie to Roadside’s gospel that poverty is no shame, as cis/het/white privilege is no virtue. To regain the trust of betrayed communities, we use true stories to sound our own complicity and build more ethical inroads towards the Reverend King’s beloved community.
Challenges to equity, like land mines along disputed borders, pepper every structure in which the hunger for capital flattens cultural difference. One revealed itself last year, when I found that LMDA did not recognize the existence of an Appalachian region within its working groups. Instead, we had been “re-districted” into the greater Midwest, Southeastern, and Mid-Atlantic zones. My solution: petition the Board to declare central Appalachia an official region with a distinct, valuable artistic and cultural character. Who could deny that, as historical sites of resistance to exploitation and oppression through labor organizing, cultural advocacy, and nonviolent protest, Appalachia and the deep South have claimed the vanguard of every major justice movement of the 20th century? Or that these movements have comprised poor and working class populations of every ethnicity onstage as well as in the streets?
The reason, I argued, is simple. As occupants of ground zero for extractive mineral and agricultural colonization within a pervasive myth-framework of white supremacy as “heritage,” our survival has depended on our ability to create and organize alongside sister rural and urban communities of every ethnicity, and to collaboratively perform counter-narratives of liberation. In these terms, my colleagues saw that affirming the autonomy of central Appalachia honors theater’s legacy of artists who have sounded out culture’s potential to enact a durable pluralism, countered trends of anti-community and isolationist political policy, and trained fellow artist-activists to spark their own creative movements in communities everywhere.
This legacy is a clear moral imperative for any white Southern artist entering an intercultural training group. To honor the imperative, I return to the basic tools of my profession: stories and questions about stories. Dramaturgs lead by asking hard questions about our respective roles in understanding and shaping narratives. As a leader/follower in the ILI cohort, I wonder:
- What is the history of women and marginalized people in leadership roles within Appalachian and other regional justice movements, and how do we study and assetize their strategies as a form of community wealth?
- What does it mean for a white feminist to align with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s doctrines of intersectional leadership, drawing together discourses on race, class, and gender to catalyze positive action within our institutions and fields?
- Carol Bebelle of New Orleans’ Ashé Cultural Arts Center asked, post-election: “Are we addicted to resistance?” If so, how can we coalition-build across justice organizations, centers of community power, and institutions of higher education to build a framework for Resistance which affirms our values as artists, educators, and culture-bearers rather than defining us by that which we oppose?
- How can I lead by revealing the beauty and complexity of my cultural heritage in ways that don’t whitewash the systems of oppression in which we are historically complicit?
I work toward a widespread recognition of Appalachia’s need for truth and reconciliation: an explicit telling of the violence that has been inflicted on the bodies, lands, and social structures of Appalachian people, and a telling of the violence that we inflict on ourselves and others; an inventory of our collective will and capacity to break these cycles of abuse; and a definite commitment to leadership strategies which guide citizens towards physical, spiritual, and material recovery and abundance.
I sought ILI for this work because I know that a functional model for truth and reconciliation can never be developed in cultural isolation, but only in the company of peers who value plural identity as the spine of any healthy leadership body. As a stranger on indigenous lands, I hope to walk softly, and to ask questions which help myself and others with privilege learn when to speak, when to listen, and when to follow; when to exercise agency to act and when to be still; and when to course-adjust as a wise response to our manifold human failings and contradictions.
Knowing we are certain to stumble under their weight, why not lift up our failures as white leaders rather than our tales of conquest for a change? They’re heavy, our failures; but only because we so often choose to bear them in isolation, hiding them out of pride — out of shame. The higher our many hands together hoist these stories, the deeper the light will penetrate them.
This essay was adapted from an earlier piece called “Appalachian Dramaturgy for Beginners,” which had its beginnings in funding narratives, grant reports, and professional development program applications, including ILI’s. Because hey, nonprofits.
Amy Brooks is an ensemble member of Roadside Theater and the executive VP for Conferences of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Her current projects at Roadside include co-editing Art in a Democracy: Selected Plays of Roadside Theater (forthcoming, New Village Press), a two-volume anthology of original Roadside scripts framed by critical essays which examine Roadside’s Appalachian and intercultural plays in their literary, historical, and contemporary social contexts. To learn more, visit www.roadsidetheater.org.