Appalachian Witches haunt Alabama audiences

Posted by | January 30, 2009

If you’re in the Huntsville, AL area you’ll want to get yourself on over to Burritt on the Mountain this weekend. A brand new play titled “Appalachian Witches,” by Christine Burke Ashwell wraps up its premiere run this weekend. It’s the story of three women bound to the Appalachian Mountains, its traditions and music, superstitions and ghosts, history and faith. One family’s bloodline speaks in the joyful voices of the mountains with a capella songs, stories and legends presented in a light-hearted storyteller style.

Appalachian Witches playTanja Miller, left, and Criss Ashwell appear behind Karen Lynn in “Appalachian Witches.”

Ms. Ashwell has served as Alabama’s state chairperson for community theatre under the Alabama Conference of Theatre, and as Alabama State Representative to the American Association of Community Theatre from 2001-2007.

We caught up with her this week to get a peek at what’s in store for audiences:

APPALACHIAN HISTORY: Why did you write this play?

CHRISTINE BURKE ASHWELL:
I suppose I see a lot of culture getting lost in development throughout the Appalachians, or just the progression of time. I certainly think that we have lost a lot of connection with the land, natural remedies and healing arts. I think the stories told throughout the mountains are allegorical as well as historical and funny and sad and so very valuable to the history of a resilient and vastly diverse population who resided in the hills of Appalachia.

So I’m creating a few more stories, reminiscent of theirs and incorporating history and culture to appeal to a modern audience. Moreover, I think my grandfather said it best, “Being poor does not mean living poorly.” In fact, as hard as some families had it, there was often more riches to be found in the people themselves than money could ever buy.

AH: What was one of your biggest challenges in pulling this play together?

CBA:
The one thing that I hesitated with is the dialect. Even being from the area I have a difficulty understanding some folks in the mountains. We have strived for the voices to be the natural sounds of the mountains in a dialect and accent that are not stereotypical or affected, but can be generally understood by most theatre audiences.

AH:
What are some of the influences you drew on for this piece?

CBA:
Hmm, a lot of absorption of reading everything from the backs of herbal tea boxes to Lee Smith’s books to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to –my favorite–the Foxfire books. Or listening to the tour guides recite their scripts–yes, there are those of us who listen! In addition, I LOVE picking up those little self published booklets that you’ll find in the gift shops of MANY places around the hills or rest stops.

Many times, I don’t buy them, I just browse them right there in the store. Somehow, something sticks in the back of my brain until I start on something, talking about history or superstitions. I don’t have a photographic memory or anything as grand as that, but those little books have proven quite entertaining, and rather informative of how life was for that family in that community.

One place that I will credit, too is the Hillbilly Savants blog. They had a great article on an earthquake and I did incorporate that into the show with a story of a meeting with the devil and some old demon exorcism goodies from the Bible.

I am ambiguous about time in the play: there are still quakes and such these days (one last year right here in Alabama) on the fault line that made these mountains.

AH:
Where in Appalachia is the play set?

CBA:
I wrote the play to be ambiguous in the locale. The mountains are so wide and diverse, one hill to the next is different, much less Georgia mountains to Tennessee to Virginia to Pennsylvania. I took a little from each place and created a few of my own “legends”. The show is presented in a storyteller style so it’s pretty audience friendly with very simple staging and production. I was also a little ambiguous on the language. At times, I cannot understand a word from the folks in the hills–whether from Virginia or Georgia…. Or my own family! But we’ve tried to remain true to mountain sounds, still remaining understandable by general audiences without being caricatures or stereotypes.

Criss AshwellAH: Does the play take a religious moral stance?

CBA:
You can’t tell the stories of the mountains without including a big dose of God and His affect on the lives of the people of the mountains. Many healers quoted the Bible for their powers to stop blood or draw out fire. Faith and church was a source of comfort, support and hope in difficult times and a joyous gathering place when times were good. Going to meeting was source of news and certainly gave the spread-out lonesome hills a sense of community. I never wrote the show intending to have such a strong dose of religion or any sort of message or morality play. God is simply an everyday presence, and religion a way of life, for these characters. These are joyful souls.

AH:
The show’s music is entirely a cappella. Why that choice?

CBA:
Singing the songs a capella lend the production towards what I consider an honest and true voice that should be uncaring of whether there is perfect pitch or not. The voices are REAL voices that sing hymns next to you in church or sing when working around the house. The religious songs are reminiscent of songs you’ve heard in church.

Camp meetings were a constant gathering place in the hills and songs traveled as much as the preachers. The first song is a mountain story song, passing the news of a local event. The next is a lullaby, sung to comfort a boy and pray for healing. The song that ends the first act is a toe-tapping hymn to encourage faith and hope.

The second act contains another spiritual calling sinners to God before it’s too late. Then there’s a mountain story-song of Ma Mary and the tragedy that befell her and her children. The play ends with the chorus of a traditional hymn that reminds Kate of her grandmother.

“Appalachian Witches” runs January 30 and 31 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $15 per person and groups of 12 and more are $12 each. Tickets are available at 536-2882 or www.burrittonthemountain.com. At the Old Country Church at Burritt.

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