11. AN APPALACHIAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, PT. 2
Well, I certainly thought I would be writing Part 2 sooner, but Mother Nature had other plans. Western North Carolina was blindsided by close to a foot of snow on the very day of our first performance. It being a site-based performance, much of it was supposed to be outside at the Vance Birthplace, which is off a small country road. Needless to say, the show did not go on. To further complicate the situation, the very night that we were to open, the site was vandalized with spray paint that said, “Black Lives Matter.” Now, I have my own thoughts on what group may or may not have been responsible for this, which I will keep to myself. However, I do want to say this. The major city newspaper ran the story of the incident but left out the fact that we were supposed to do a show that night—a show highlighting the lives of the enslaved people of the site. We were doing this show to contextualize Zebulon Vance, and this crime was reported without the full context of our event. The frustration of not doing the show became unbearably intensified.
However, as the site manager and my collaborator, Kim Floyd, called around to inform our reservations of the sad, but obvious fact of our cancellation, a resounding refrain came : “Well, how about in January?” Now, I’m the kind of person that is ready for Christmas to be over immediately. Don’t get me wrong—I love the holiday season. But when it’s over, the tree must go away, don’t let me hear even the first bars of a carol, and please let the curtain come down on holiday shows. Luckily (with this and other matters), I am not the audience. So, my true Christmas gift was that enough wonderful folk still wanted to see what we’d been working on. We rescheduled to January 19th and 20th, barely got a rehearsal run in due to even more snow, and, finally, the show went on.
I’ll attempt a run-down of the experience. When you arrived at the site and checked in, you were given a name tag that said, “Hello, my name is Zeb.” At your designated time you were led outside to your tour guide (played by Simone Roos Snook). She welcomed you to the site, began her introduction, and was quickly notified of an “historical situation.” She made her apologies, told you to stay right there, and ran away to attend to said situation. Once gone, you heard the winds howling, chains jangling, and then the voice of Priscilla Brank, Zeb’s dead grandmother (also Simone). She warned you of your own chain that was developing and informed you that you will be visited by three ghosts. As she left, the tour guide popped back in and led you to the Main House. As you entered a candle-lit room, a bell chimed three times and a voice came from the candle filled fireplace—the Ghost of Christmas Past (Stephanie Hickling Beckman). She recited a poem your brother wrote you of your childhood and as she did this, light boxes illuminated depicting your childhood home, the graveyard nearby, and the church where you were baptized. Suddenly a humming came from the kitchen and the Ghost suggested you follow it. As you came around the corner you saw a crankie machine and puppeteer in front of the roaring fire and the Ghost introduced the source of the humming—Venus, the enslaved woman who raised you. The voice of Venus began singing a lullaby (All the Pretty Horses) as the crankie rolled past images from the song. As it concluded, the tour guide burst into the room with more apologies of leaving you alone and directed you to the Loom House, promising she’d be right with you. Again alone, as Venus’ silhouette appeared in the window above humming Amazing Grace, the voice of Christmas Past told you Venus’ story. After the death of your father, the whole estate was put up for sale, including Venus. Zeb’s mother, feeling the grip of necessity, bought Venus back for a dollar and no one dared bid higher. Venus’ light went out shortly thereafter. As the Ghost left you, the tour guide appeared again with apologies and directed you over to the Tool House, promising she’d be there soon. You arrived to the bell chiming four times and a large wreath that made up the face of the Ghost of Christmas Present was revealed. He (Jerrell Henderson) welcomed you and, after some banter, he directed you to the garden next to the Tool House, where you found another crankie and puppeteer. The Ghost told you that this is the story of Venus (not the same, probably not even related, but who knows?) and her freedom. To the backdrop of a banjo instrumental of What Child is This?, the crankie unrolls the story through a metaphor of a seed growing into a sunflower that is then tossed around by the elements of its environment. The Ghost then asked you if you are curious about what happens to her next and told you to go on down to the Smoke House, where they hang the meat to dry. As you approached the Smoke House, you heard a banjo play Silent Night. Inside you saw, hanging from the ceiling beneath Christmas lights, a multitude of dead flowers. A sunflower hung down in front and the Ghost told you that, if nothing changes, Venus would die. He then left you with a warning against Ignorance and Want and a hint that the next Ghost is the silent type.
At this point, the tour guide greeted you with apologies for your “self-guided tour” and a promise that she is there to stay. She began leading you across the grounds, informing you of Zeb’s death and of his complicated legacy. She addressed his achievements and the costs of those achievements. Clearly frustrated and disappointed with this information, she even thought aloud that if Zeb was visited by Ghosts of Christmas, maybe he would have changed his ways. Finally, you arrived at your last stop of the tour, the Slave Cabin. She told you to enter, take all the time you like, and she’d meet you on the other side. As you walked to the door, the bell rang five times, and you saw three signs along the pathway, held by skeleton hands: “Witness”, “Acknowledge”, and “Confront.” You entered the cabin, a fire roaring, and you created your own ending. On the other side, a representative of the site greeted you, gave you a little more context for the experience as she led you to a bonfire to field any questions you may have.
Given how hard it was to get there, between snow and all the problems that usually come with putting up an event like this, the actual show went extremely smoothly. There were technical problems here and there, but nothing that derailed the experience. All of us involved in putting it up learned a lot. We changed what we could on the spot and logged what we couldn’t for the future. The response, which is still trickling in, has been (from what I know thus far) entirely positive. However, I am always looking for more, so if you’re reading this and have feedback, please email me at: email@example.com. Be it good or bad, and honestly especially if it’s the latter, I want to hear it. We hope to do this show again next Christmas and we will be striving to make it even better.
Special thanks to my collaborator, Kim Floyd, my fellow puppeteer, Alex Smith, our fantastic cast (see above), and the volunteers those nights: Kerby Price, Dennis Owenby, Catherine Amos, Brandon Cheek, Taylor Floyd, Sara Kaglic, Kayla Seay, and Jenny Webb.