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A More Perfect Union

People writing on banner
Kesha Watson and Sally Summers in the “Washpot” arbor. View slideshow of images from the play.

UNION COUNTY, S.C.: You could hear a pin drop in the theater tonight. It’s not often you hear the word "nigger" on stage in the South. You certainly don’t hear it in a musical production full of fun for the whole family–and it’s almost impossible to imagine a community rallying around a work of art of such unsettling honesty. But this summer night is different as Union County gathers for the first time to witness–and perform–its communal theatrical creation, "Turn the Washpot Down." There will never be another night like tonight, overflowing with the cheers and tears of people who have loved each other through many hard times.

The performers in "Turn the Washpot Down" are the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers of this rural Southern backwater, telling not just their own stories, but each other’s–the true stories of the people of Union County. These tales–many of them untold for centuries, metaphorically hidden in an old washpot in the woods where slaves used to congregate in secret–are brought to light by a cast of 83, black and white, aged 8 to 80.

The artwork is a group effort to pull Union County back from the brink of disintegration. The historic area is not only financially stricken, but notorious: The whole country knows the village of Union as the home of Susan Smith, who drowned her two children by driving her car into the town lake in 1994, then invented a story of a black carjacker to take the blame. Add to that tragedy the collapse of the textile industry. The population is shrinking as people seek jobs elsewhere, businesses and schools shut down and small towns like Lockhart and Jonesville stumble toward bankruptcy and squabble over county resources.

Two years ago, Art Sutton, who owns local radio station WBCU, organized the citizens of Union County to consider doing something about it. Unlikely as it sounds, they turned to a solution they call "cultural." They hired Community Performance Inc (CPI) to come to Union and help them develop a play.

CPI is a unique theater team based in Chicago, but with members spread over the country all the way to Las Vegas. These artists are approached by communities who want to collaborate on an original play for a variety of reasons–perhaps to re-energize town pride, discover or remodel their communal identity, heal the wounds of a crisis or a rift, or examine some burning social issue like homelessness or health care. Richard Owen Geer, CPI co-writer and -director (with Jules Corriere) of "Washpot," calls this theater "of, by and for" the people.

This gem of cultural democracy does not swoop down like Yankee carpetbaggers to impose anything on the locals. They are invited in. It is the community’s responsibility to raise the needed funds, and it’s a collaboration all the way. CPI has been hired by groups in places ranging from Virginia to Florida to Colorado, from a close community of Mennonites in Newport News to a wildly diverse inner-city gang of neighbors in Chicago. Each project is completely unique to its setting.

This work is successful in a way most art can never be. The spectacle of such a large group of first-time artists collaborating across race, gender and class is undeniably thrilling, and when I hear of a CPI project, I try to get in on as much of the process as possible. The CPI artists always push the participants close to the edge of what they are capable of doing well and willing to talk about honestly. This provokes fierce pride in the participants, sits well with the neighbors and even pleases the local critics. In short, it satisfies just about everybody, including the artists.

Union Country’s hopes were based on the dazzling success of "Swamp Gravy," a CPI-facilitated community play that turned the economy around in troubled Miller County, Ga. Using CPI writer Jo Carson’s method of gathering local stories from every level of county society and crafting them into a script, then adding Geer’s creative direction with music and movement, Miller County inaugurated "Swamp Gravy" in an old cotton warehouse in Colquitt in 1991. It not only bridged the gap between the races and stretched the creative capacities of its citizens–it took on a life of its own as the official "Georgia folklife play," selling out to busloads of tourists each year. A rickety venture that started with seed money of $2,000 now has a million-dollar budget, owns its own building and is the largest employer in Miller County. " ‘Swamp Gravy’ is merely the most compelling experience I have ever had in the theater," wrote editor Ed Carson in the Macon Telegraph. "It was wonderful to see a community come together–black, white, young, old, rich, poor–and create a performance that is not only healing but compelling, authoritative, confident theater."

That’s what Sutton and his companions witnessed when they traveled to Colquitt in 2000 to see "Swamp Gravy" and assess the potential for such a project in Union. They liked what they saw and came home to create a nonprofit organization called the Boogaloo Broadcasting Company, named after the currency that was once paid to textile-mill workers for use in the company store. They sought the aid of "Swamp Gravy" organizational director Bill Grow, who came aboard to help achieve a "buy-in" from stakeholders in the county, especially people on the school board and pastors of the black churches. From his experience in southern Georgia, he knew the project would only be successful if community leaders were part of the process from the get-go. Grow also hooked Boogaloo up with CPI.

Geer and his co-writer and director, Jules Corriere, each spent 13-14 weeks in South Carolina over the year-and-a-half it took to produce the play, training a band of story-gatherers to mine the narrative gold buried in the region. "They told us we had to have an opening question to start people thinking," said one of the story collectors, Union County banker Ola Jean Kelly, in an interview with the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. "Most important, we just had to be quiet and listen. Transcribers took down everything verbatim. Our language and vernacular. We had to. It’s our oral history."

With music by Don McCullogh and Denny Clarke and choreography by Kevin Iega Jeff, the frame of "Turn the Washpot Down" is a live radio broadcast interspersed with comic and tragic tales ranging from the innocence of pre-teens accidentally getting drunk on blackberry wine to more serious stories of broken dreams and broken families, racial strife and shocking betrayal. A soldier is accidentally branded a deserter and the town shames his whole family. Two groups of boys, one black and one white, sneak into the "no-man’s land" beside the river that once racially divided Union, with the object of making a trade: a box of peaches for a set of wheels. They are caught and stoned by men who "throw rocks at anyone who doesn’t stay on their side of the river." The characters in the piece are often twinned with younger or older versions of themselves, providing a reflective device that brings out the whole truth of each story.

Periodically, the radio announcer interrupts the play with some comic relief, program segments that Union Countians actually hear every day when they tune in station WBCU. There are country music selections spun by the station’s DJ, commercials for the local drug store and a virtual tour of the town on "The Happy Bus," noting all the specific details that make the neighborhood what it is: Miss Hames in her sagging knee-highs; Ola Jean Kelly out getting her newspaper in her fuzzy green slippers; Sara Jones out painting her house, as she has been for 15 years. These sights are all familiar to the Union audience.

Corriere learned that, in the days of the Civil War, slaves were forbidden to gather together in public–so they met in secret in the woods and carried with them an iron washpot, believing that the pot would dampen the sounds of their whispered stories. The pot was turned upside down to hide each secret "so it don’t get out to people who ain’t ready to hear it yet," as a black character explains to the audience in the play’s first scene. The rough stage has been set with a stand of leafy green trees. "That brush arbor," she confides, "still holdin’ people, that washpot still holdin’ stories. It’s safe in the brush arbor, now. They’re safe here with us, because we got the ears to hear and the heart to listen." One by one, over the course of the play, townspeople approach the arbor and the pot turns up as they spill out their stories.

The arbor story itself comes from Union Councilwoman Dora Martin, whose grandmother was a slave. The "N-word" turns up in a story not about slavery, but about integration. It is told by an actor playing Leroy Worthy, a black man hired by Milliken, the owner of the Lockhart mill, to integrate the workforce. In an uncomfortable scene with a recalcitrant mill manager, Young Leroy turns aside and speaks his inner feelings into the washpot, which is held by his counterpart, Old Leroy: "I already turned down a good job," he explains. "I’m a qualified brick layer, was makin’ $2.60 an hour, I come here makin’ $1.15. Serious pay cut. But I wanna work here. I wanna show how black people can work with white people and be successful. I’m not gonna let my anger spoil this chance. … And like my grandmother taught me, a positive attitude gets you in doors where education and money will not. Got me this far, and it’ll take me further."

But complications ensue, as Old Leroy imparts to the audience: "I was promoted to manager and I took another man’s job, a white man, and he’s still there, only now he’s under me. Sent his wife to tell me he wasn’t gonna work for a nigger. I was prepared to deal with that a long time ago. I was seven years old, got called that name, and my grandmother says to me, ‘A nigger is somebody low and dirty. If that don’t fit you, then walk on by, it doesn’t apply.’"

"It wasn’t as scary writing the piece–I knew what had to be in there," Corriere told me later. "Sure, I knew I was taking a risk with some of the material, but the real scary part happened when I heard it read out loud for the first time. I caught myself holding my breath, waiting for the reactions of the other people in the rehearsal room, especially during Leroy Worthy’s piece." She felt she could use the word, she said, because Worthy used it himself when he told her the story. In the mouth of a black character who is treated with respect, the term takes on an different power. "When it’s taken off the paper and put into mouths, it’s a much more dangerous play than I realized," said the playwright. "I found myself almost wanting to soften it when I heard it out loud for the first time. I have to give the credit to the community, at least the community of actors performing the play, who said yes to telling these stories. They didn’t want to settle for sweetness. They wanted to tell the hard stuff, and to prove how far they’ve come, and that they’re willing to go further. God, I’m lucky to write for people like this."

But in Union, there’s still an elephant in the room: Susan Smith. Corriere said few people ever brought her up in conversation. What did come up was story upon story about good parenting. One story, however, wasn’t so nice. A character named "Robert" resists, but eventually pours out the desperate tale of his own childhood abuse, of a mother who didn’t love him, beat him, emotionally strafed him for no reason and lied to authorities about his age to send him off to war at 15, telling him not to come back if he lived. Later in the play, a multigenerational circle of black women are sitting and sewing, led by the 82-year-old actual mayor of nearby Carlisle, Janie Goree. She talks of her slave grandmother who bought her own freedom, yet remained on the plantation to be with her children. The women all remark on this example of mother love. Robert then reappears in the arbor, raises the washpot above his head and says, finally, "I forgive you." And with this, maybe Union forgave Susan Smith.

This is an intimate theater of place. Its potent impact is derived from its truth, the resonance of shared ordeals and delights, its portrait of a place like no other. In 30 years of watching cutting-edge performance, I have rarely witnessed a response like the look I saw on an elderly audience member’s face as she took the hands of a teen-aged boy in the cast while he sang to her from "The Happy Bus":

Leave behind your routine ways and join us on an adventure junket,
Put concern and caution out of sight;
Do it now, don’t count the days, be brave and think like no one’s thunk it,
Just be diff’rent cuz you know it’s right.

For an audience member who is not a local, who doesn’t know the cast or its family secrets, this work has another impact: the rich pleasure of seeing any town on the stage in all its naked diversity, struggling to make art together. Boogaloo is right: It is something to invest in. Whatever happens to Union County, they will have done this. Its spark is already igniting a fire. As I was putting the polish on this story, I found out Boogaloo has purchased the ruins of the burned-down textile mill that used to nurture and own this community. They plan to turn it into a theater and museum. "Washpot" is scheduled for remounting in 2003.

Once in a while in my travels, I see graffiti scrawled on a wall somewhere: "Art Saves Lives." I feel in my bones it is true. Even if "Turn the Washpot Down" doesn’t save Union’s life, it has already saved its soul.

This article appeared in the December 2002 issue of American Theater and the March-April issue of Utne Reader.

Linda Frye Burnham is a co-director of the Community Arts Network.

Original CAN/API publication: February 2003


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