Barter Theatre’s Black Stories, Black Voices (formerly known as the Black in Appalachia Initiative) began with the need to amplify the most diverse stories of our region and stemmed from the idea that all Appalachian voices deserved to be heard and represented on its stages. The intention is to provide a safe space for Black Appalachian audiences and artists to share their stories and showcase their work on a professional stage.
“We found that the growth of the Black in Appalachia Initiative is encompassing Appalachian stories, and stories beyond the region as well. The name change leans in to our full mission which is to tell and amplify Black stories and voices through playwriting, acting and all theatrical disciplines. With BSBV, we hope to help shine a light on the richness of the Black experienceinthis region andforthis region,” says Terrance Jackson, director of outreach and Black Stories, Black Voices.
As a part of that program, Barter has committed to presenting at least one Black play in each Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights and developing the Shine: Illuminating Black Stories program.
“The Transported Man”
This year’s BSBV selection is‘The Transported Man’by Russell Nichols, and it is based on the memoir,‘Narrative of the Life of Henry ‘Box’ Brown.’ Henry Box Brown was an abolitionist lecturer and performer. Born an enslaved person in Louisa County, Virginia, he worked in a Richmond tobacco factory.
In 1848, his wife, who was owned by another master and who was pregnant with their fourth child, was sold away to North Carolina, along with their children. Brown resolved to escape from slavery and enlisted the help of a free black man and a white slaveowner, who conspired to ship him in a box to Philadelphia. In March 1849 the package was accepted there by a leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
“This is a true story that is Appalachian through and through and has the potential to be a really great piece of theater, and I’m thrilled that Barter will be able to read it in our festival,” says Jackson.
“The Transported Man” is on Barter’s Smith stage Feb. 26 at 1 p.m.
SHINE: Illuminating Black Stories
SHINE: Illuminating Black Storiesis an evening of storytelling that explores the Black experience in Appalachia while celebrating the work of its Black theater artists. Black playwrights from across the country write monologues (which are just solo speeches) based on prompts that Barter personnel compiled that are based on Black Appalachian people and stories. The selectedmonologues inspired by this collection of prompts are then directed and performed by professional actors and directors from Barter Theatre atShine.
“It is our hope that by connecting Black playwrights (wherever they are located) with stories from Black Appalachian communities, we can create monologues that can be developed into full-length plays; create work that explores the Black Appalachian experience,both past and present; establish and cultivate relationships with Black playwrights and other Blacktheater artists; and give audiences accessibility to new perspectives on life in Appalachia.
“Selected playwrights are awarded a cash prize as well as housing and travel for the event.We decided to name itShine: Illuminating Black Stories, because that’s exactly what we wanted the event to do. Shine a light on Black stories from our region that have either gone unnoticed or unheard,” says Jackson.
The monologues in the Shine program are based on a prompt that Jackson and Catherine Bush, Barter’s playwright-in-residence, researched and selected. They found the stories in news articles, historical sites and personal stories gathered from black communities and used with permission.
Monologue prompts include a cross burning that happened in Marion, Virginia in 2020; The Sanctified Hill Disaster of 1972 in Cumberland, Kentucky; Leslie Riddle, a musician, who helped A. P. Carter find old-time music; Bill Plummer, born machinist and inventor, from Chilhowie, and Tazewell, Virginia; Katherine Goegel Johnson, Marion, Virginia, mathematician and teacher who worked on Alan Shepherd’s space launch and was featured in “Hidden Figures;” and The Eastern Kentucky Social Club in Lynch, Kentucky, which provides connection and reunion for families, friends, churches and school within the Appalachian diaspora.
Other prompts include John Broady from Smyth County, Virginia, who was a Revolutionary War soldier with the Overmountain Men; Hannah Valentine, Abingdon, Virginia, whose letters while she was a slave at Mont Calm in Abingdon, provide a personal point of view into slavery and separation from her husband and children; the effect the Day Law had on Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, which was fully integrated until the passage of the Day Law which prevented “white and colored persons from attending the same school”; Wendell Scott, NASCAR’s first black driver from Danville, Virginia; John Henry, legendary railroader, Talcott, West Virginia; and The Kingdom of the Happy Land, Tuxedo, North Carolina, an autonomous Black community ruled by a king and queen and made up of formerly enslaved people.
Other topics are the opioid epidemic in Black Appalachian communities; the destruction of Vinegar Hill, Charlottesville, Virginia; The Home Place, Limestone, Tennessee, a tale of a conflict with the Klan; Harry Plummer, Chilhowie, Virginia, who invented a three-wheeled automobile; Wilhemina Banks and the Nyumba Ya Tausi-Peacock Museum, Bristol, Virginia; Going Home, Bristol, Tennessee, the story of a man who left Bristol, joined the Marines, retired and found his calling as a minister; Jimmy Plummer, Marion, Virginia, and his career with the New York Mets; Highlander Folk School, Monteagle, Tennessee, a training ground for young Black activists in the 1950s and 1960s; Evelyn Thompson Lawrence, Marion, Virginia, a teacher and the creator of Sallie’s Crying Tree storytelling event; and The Appalachian African American Cultural Center, Pennington Gap, Virginia.
Jackson says, “Monologues are a great first step in writing for theater, and it’s something that anyone could do with a little help. It’s very accessible to the average audience member, even if you’ve never been to the theater before - you have seen a monologue or speech performed. The hope is to then develop those monologues into scenes, and then from a scene into a longer work such as a one-act play or a full-length play.
“I first came to Barter Theatre in 2013 as a Barter Player, and I wished back then for programming like this where I could see myself and stories about people who looked like me on our stages, and I’m proud to be able to say that we are doing that now. I’m honored to help facilitate stories of and from this region and for Black audience members and patrons to be able to say, ‘That’s my story! Thank you for seeing me!’ I’ve seen it affect others in a lot of ways. I’ve seen it inspire Black audience members to start writing their stories down and creating monologues.
“I’ve seen it encourage Black audience members to come see other shows at Barter Theatre even if it isn’t a primarily Black cast or a Black story. I’ve seen it affect white audience members as well — many saying that they have never experienced anything in the theater like they have at events such asShine. I’ve been stunned by how powerful and impactful it’s been so soon. It just goes to show how much our community and region needed this and was ready for it.”
People can get involved with BSBV events by staying up to date on events by visiting the Barter Theatre website or by contacting Jackson firstname.lastname@example.org. Barter has writing resources, such as free workshops and playwriting competitions such as Shine and its full-length play competition with AFPP that writers can submit to. It also has BSBV Community Nights at selected performances where they encourage Black, Indigenous and people of color to attend and engage in community talkbacks post show.
Shine: Illuminating Black Stories is held Sunday, Feb. 26 at 5 p.m. at Barter’s Gilliam Stage. It is a free event.