by Mike Templeton
The Express Urban Appalachian Showcase on October 24 at the Aronoff offered so much it is difficult to decide where to begin to reflect on it all. From the opening voices to the chorus at the end, the Showcase offered more than I think any of us could imagine. The work of director Sherry Cook Stanforth of Thomas More University certainly paid off as we were all riveted by songs, stories, and poetry.
From the beginning, with the a cappella voices of young women and Sherry, I was mesmerized by singing that was both heartwarming and haunting. The voices of these young girls carried the immediacy of the moment, but the fragments of old songs in the absence of musical accompaniment gave the fragments a rawness that was genuinely moving.
Omope Carter Daboiku stepped up to the podium to declare her Appalachian bona fides and in doing named some of the overarching themes of the evening: place, identity, and resiliency became evident as everyone embodied the old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell.” We were made to feel these ideas in words and music.
Bear Foot took the stage for some stories and music which gave something of a foundation for all that would follow. Their performance was captivating, but I really loved the use of the old-fashioned banjo that had more of a bass sound than the trebly twang with which we are more familiar. Bear Foot was joined by members of the Rabbit Hash String band and some dancers for an old-time square dance.
It is impossible to describe everything from the Showcase, but some of the high points for me included moments that were unexpected. With a momentary glitch in the order of appearance of acts, at one point the curtain opened on Ma Crow and the Flock. Though they looked slightly surprised for a split second, they immediately launched into a flawless and riveting performance. There are a lot of reasons why Ma Crow has come to be part of the fabric of Appalachian culture in greater Cincinnati, and Ma Crow and the Flock showed us a few this evening.
Dee Marie’s performance was something I can scarcely describe. Dee reminds us that Appalachia is something that is derived from geography and endures because of spirit and tradition, all of which transcend individual identity. Stories of her family mixed with a cappella renditions of songs that cut across genres and styles left us all speechless.
The evening was more than songs and stories, of course. Pauletta Hansel, Richard Hague, and Mike Henson took the podium to share poetry that spoke of Appalachia remembered and Appalachia as it is now. Pauletta’s poem “Coal,” a poem I’ve heard her read before, captures old memories of a childhood in the hills and places situates those memories in the center of images of an Appalachia of today that is scarred by things like mountain top removal.
I am just going to go ahead and admit that I was found Mike Henson’s declaration that he remembers when “OTR” was called Over-the-Rhine to be satisfying. He read his contribution like a Beat poet, repeating the refrain: “they asked about you.”
Young poets filled out the literary dimension of the performance. Hearing young people from Oyler School read works that were so clearly written from their hearts and lived experiences was especially moving.
I must say one particular highlight for the evening were the Zelewskis. Girls in pink dresses and some in goth attire all laid into some the most spirited fiddle playing you can imagine. These kids got lost in the music and you could see it in their movements.
The show came to a crescendo and a fitting conclusion as everyone took the stage for a rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” This song has become quite familiar, and this allowed the audience to get on our feet and sing along.
All in all, the Express Urban Appalachian Showcase was an enormous success. Sherry Cook Stanforth is to be congratulated, as are all the performers, poets, and those behind the scenes who made this event a testament to Appalachia both past and present.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.