Please welcome guest author Barbara Bates Smith. Smith’s one-woman Off-Broadway performance of “Ivy Rowe,” from Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, co-adapted and directed by Mark Hunter, has led to her extensive touring of Lee Smith’s works, adding those of Ron Rash and Allan Gurganus. Smith and her husband, Russell, now live in the mountains near Clyde, NC, where on occasional breaks from learning lines, she enjoys playing piano, harp, guitar, autoharp, and dulcimer—carrying a harmonica in her purse.
“She’s turned into a mountain woman. She’s moved to the mountains, she plays the dulcimer, she clogs, she’s taken up quilting. She’s turned into Ivy Rowe!” That’s what Appalachian novelist Lee Smith says about me. I’m proud of that. An actress by trade, I’d taken a lot of teasing from my peers twelve years ago: “You’re just trying to become this ‘Ivy Rowe’ you’ve been portraying for so long.” They referred to the spunky Appalachian letter-writer from Lee Smith’s novel, Fair and Tender Ladies, who was the basis for my one-woman show. No denial here. And “Ivy Rowe” and I are still going strong entering our twenty-fifth year and over 700 performances.
“You must be crazy—A one-woman play from Fair and Tender Ladies?” Lee remembers chiding me. “This novel is all letters; it’s about writing!” Later she admitted, “I would’ve said flatly no, if you hadn’t been so feisty. But I thought to myself, ‘This woman is just like Ivy Rowe,’ and so I said yes.” That did it. Lee Smith and her character, Ivy Rowe, changed my life and career.
On the go with “Ivy Rowe”
I had no claim of identity with Ivy or her setting, except having grown up in the part of Alabama that might be considered the foothills of the Appalachian range. But I’m an actress, and when I read the newly published Fair and Tender Ladies in 1988, I was determined to play Ivy—on street corners if necessary. Fortunately, Mark Hunter, artistic director of Playmakers Theatre in Tampa, fell for this passionate mountain woman just as I had. He agreed to co-adapt, direct, and produce the one-woman play, “Ivy Rowe,” which opened in Tampa in 1989. Lee was in the audience, and none of us could have guessed what would follow.
Ivy simply took on a life of her own, and I have followed after her, all over the map—New York, Edinburgh, Salt Lake City—Oh, but before playing in New York, Lee wanted Ivy to pass muster in her home area of southwest Virginia. “Ivy Rowe” played in the very auditorium where Lee was crowned “Miss Grundy High School” and later “Miss Bituminous Coal.”
Lou Crabtree, a model for “Ivy”
As I was leaving Grundy for Abingdon, VA, Lee said, “Be sure to meet Lou Crabtree.” Oh yes, I remembered, she was the mountain woman who had once tottered into Lee’s creative writing class there. In the opening exercise, Lou’s first line from her story made Lee gasp in delight: “Aunt Reller had 13 miscarriages, and she named ever’ one of ‘em.” I was eager to meet this model for Ivy Rowe.
White-haired, leaning on her stick, Lou called out from her front porch, “Is this Barbara Bates Smith? You better be something with a name like that!” Inside the house, I reluctantly turned down offers of items to use for the show: a witch’s broom, kerosene lamps, and a ‘burrel’ (burial) dress. She snapped, “You’re not just gonna sit down and read out some letters, are you? I like a play that has some action to it!” After seeing the show, Lou took both my hands in hers, and pronounced what felt like a papal blessing: “Honey, don’t you change a thing!” She predicted great success for the show. “I used to tell fortunes,” she said, “but I got so good at it, I had to quit.”
Off-Broadway and Beyond
Lee says that when she wants to empower a heroine, she sends her to the mountains. And I, empowered by Lou as well, was off to New York. The big question: Would these sophisticated, theatre-savvy audiences welcome this Appalachian woman? I gave them five minutes to sit back in their “show me” posture. Then I smiled to myself as Ivy slowly but surely seemed to empower them.
In the past decade, accompanied by Jeff Sebens’s hammered dulcimer, lap dulcimer, and banjo, I’ve been touring with other Lee Smith pieces as well. A current favorite combination has been “The Happy Memories Club,” with an “Our Own Stories” workshop as a follow-up.
Lee asks if I ever get tired of playing Ivy Rowe. Never. I love it every time. If six months go by with no Ivy, I get restless. Ivy both grounds me and lifts me up. The way she looks life in the face, says yes to it, makes mistakes, but always manages to “keep on keepin’ on.” Sometimes I don’t know where this mountain woman ends and I begin. I don’t care. I’m having too much fun.