Appalachian History: You’re a Milwaukee-born individual, trained in Washington and Massachusetts, teaching writing at Baruch College in NYC. What connects you emotionally to the folks of Appalachia? Why should they care about your voice?
Sarah Moon: My connection to this region began in 2006, when our company New Mummer Group brought a little known Tennessee Williams play called ‘Candles to the Sun’ to Louisville, KY, for what would be only its third ever known production. ‘Candles to the Sun’ tells the story of a family living in the coal camps of southern Appalachia in the 1930’s.
As most of the cast were unfamiliar with coal country, Stephanie Pistello, our director, planned a driving route that would bring us through Virginia, West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, stopping to tour an old coal mine and coal museum and to meet some of her relatives along the way. We even did an outside rehearsal on her aunt’s land, with the hills all around us. I distinctly remember that day and a photograph I took of one of our actors, lying on the grass looking up at the sky. In it, his body and the land are both blue-dark, as though they’re merging into one another.
It felt like we all connected strongly with the land on that trip. I think if it weren’t for that, our performance would not have been as rich as it was. My connection then to Appalachia was established because of theatre but also went beyond theatre. When the time came for us to return to New York, I didn’t want to. In fact, I actually planned a road trip down South to prolong my time away. When I did get back, I felt different. What had changed me more than anything was the connection I had felt with nature, land and water, on that trip and I’ve been working to get closer to it ever since.
That connection grew in May of 2007 when our company was asked to put together a performance piece on the subject of mountain top removal for a media action event at the UN. Our dramaturg found transcripts from victims of the Buffalo Creek flood in 1972. I chose one of those testimonies to perform and through it found a connection to the suffering of Appalachians who’ve lost or suffered damage on their land because of strip mining and mountain top removal.
That connection grew more real on the day of our performance when I met and listened to coal field residents, Larry Gibson and Judy Bonds, speak out for environmental justice. After that day, I knew that the subject of our next play would have to be mountain top removal. I wanted to lend my voice to this issue because of that love I’d developed for the region while doing Candles to the Sun and because of the empathy I felt with those already fighting, literally, for their survival.
My connection to Appalachia grew from that moment. In the summer of 2007, we went down to Berea, KY to do a workshop of six new one-acts, three by Kentucky playwrights and three by New York playwrights. After the workshop, I extended my trip to allow time to interview environmental professor Richard Olson, activist Teri Blanton and environmental researcher Tammy Horn on mountain top removal. I also took a flyover of mountain top removal sites in West Virginia with Southwings, an organization that provides free flight trips over environmental disaster areas.
Over the past two years, I have grown closer to the region by getting to personally know coalfield leaders in the movement and attending gatherings like Mountain Justice Summer in Kentucky and West Virginia. My “research” has turned out to be a very personal journey. I now feel Appalachia as part of my identity in a way that words can’t really do justice. It’s a collection of memories, images, like getting stuck on the icy road up to Kayford Mountain and having to hike the rest of the way without falling and breaking a leg. But if we hadn’t gotten out and hiked, I never would have noticed an expanse of green moss and icicles that clung to the side of the hill. Now that’s a memory I’ll have forever.
AH: If readers of the Appalachian History blog like what you have to say, how might they expect to get access to this play? Will you be touring the region soon? Do you plan online videos?
SM: It’s a priority for us to tour this play in coal country. We want to premiere the play in Kentucky, then bring it to theatres throughout Appalachia before bringing it back to New York. We want it to inspire discussion and even action. The play ends with the lead character asking “Will you stand?” The question is directed at an actor who is standing in the audience so the audience feels that the question is also being asked of them.
My dream is that audiences will, in fact, stand up in the theatre to show their solidarity with the movement and will take that with them out into the real world. This fight is about numbers. We outnumber the coal company owners. We can win simply by standing together, just as the rednecks did in the 1930’s. The mountains need the people to come together now on their behalf and the play is a tool for making that convergence happen.
Several people suggested online videos to us after our reading on Friday. We haven’t discussed it yet, but we likely will create them, once we have footage from our first full production. Though it’s no substitute for live theatre, videos certainly give us the advantage of reaching a wider audience and we want to reach as many people as we can with this message. There’s no one in America for whom this issue is not important.