We have focused our attention recently on visual art and poetry and the ways these forms can bring attention to issues of social justice and community through art. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition places great value on this intersection of art and community advocacy. Theater is yet another artistic medium by which social issues can find powerful expression through the arts, and one of the foremost theater organizations working this area is Roadside Theater. Roadside Theater is also an Appalachian theater organization that finds its milieu within the rural/ urban worlds and is driven by the ways different communities come together through theater and art.

Roadside Theater has quite a long history. As part of the Appalshop mission to tell the stories of Appalachia and Appalachian people, Roadside Theater began in 1975 as part of Appalshop which began in 1969 as a workshop to help young Appalachians learn to make films and tell the stories of Appalachia from their perspective. Roadside was a logical outgrowth of this initial project, offering theater as another medium by which the people of the Appalachian region could give voice to their experience, often in direct opposition to media from outside the Appalachian region which relied on and furthered dangerous and reductive stereotypes.

Appalshop has grown exponentially from its beginning as a small film workshop. From an experiment in giving voice to Appalachian youth, Appalshop has become a multi-disciplinary arts organization that is driven, in their own words, to “offer a counternarrative to the one that made Eastern Kentucky the poster child for American poverty.” Appalshop and all the various projects that work under its umbrella are some of the key forces in Appalachian arts and community engagement. 

The beginnings of Roadside Theater, as they state on their website, was “in the coalfields of Appalachia in 1975.” They describe themselves as “Art in a Democracy,” and this seems to underscore all they do. But we need to keep in mind that the reach and import of Roadside Theater goes well beyond these coalfields and well beyond central Appalachia. Roadside has brought their mix of drama and advocacy to urban areas all over the United States. In fact, Roadside has spent considerable time in the Cincinnati area. In the 1980s and 1990s Roadside often performed at the Appalachian Festival. UACC’s predecessor, the Urban Appalachian Council, engaged in several long-term residencies with Roadside Theater. One such collaboration with Roadside and their colleagues at Junebug Productions brought us the story circle process. Since then we have used story circles anytime we wish to engage in deep listening with our community

Roadside has maintained a relationship with New York University with the New York University– Appalachia Exchange. This is a program with NYU in which students are given the opportunity to travel to Whitesburg, Kentucky to participate in a five-day immersion in the activist theory and practice that has long characterized the work of Appalshop.

Tucker Leighty-Phillips, the Relationship Development Manager with Roadside, pointed to their recent work in West Baltimore, Maryland and a cooperative project with Arch Social Community Network. This was a project designed to provide an outlet for cultural expression through arts, entertainment, and social dialogue. Leighty-Phillips explained this project was part of the “Performing Our Futures” program that is one of many programs that make up the work of Roadside Theater. Leighty-Phillips described “Performing Our Futures” as “an urban/rural, multicultural, multi-racial, coalition that comes together for creative projects built on ideas of social justice.” The creative work of Roadside Theater is grounded in social justice and advocacy and building community relationships is central to all they do.

I managed to speak with Tucker Leighty-Phillips just as Roadside Theater was wrapping up their Residency Week. This is a week in which Roadside devotes all their energies toward creative work. As Leighty-Phillips explained, “we spend a lot of time managing administrative concerns and managing our projects that we finally decided to devote a full week to nothing but creative work. This is the Residency Week.” This Residency Week was devoted to developing a play project based on the history behind Carr Reservoir. The Carr Reservoir is now a recreational destination near Whitesburg, Kentucky. What is not apparent to visitors to this destination is that the reservoir was constructed after the Army Corps of Engineers displaced numerous rural communities. The reservoir was originally developed in 1960s and, as Roadside Theater states, the project “displaced a number of racially-integrated communities at the height of the national civil rights movement.” This part of the history of Carr Creek Reservoir forms the core of the current project

The play in the works with Residency Week is still in development and is tentatively called the “Carr Creek Project.” What is clear from this project is both the community development that goes into the work of Roadside Theater and the community focus of their dramatic works. Tucker Leighty-Phillips told me that Residency Week has “brought together oral historians, folklorists, and descendants of people who once lived in the communities displaced by the Carr Creek Reservoir.” What has emerged is the way this particular story merges with similar stories in other parts of the country. Readers who are following the UACC Research Committee’s work on the history of Peck’s Addition in Hamilton may find points of identification here. 

We look forward to the progress of the Carr Creek Project. You can follow Roadside Theater at the link provided below. The emphasis that Roadside Theater places on the urban and rural connections that are sustained through theater seems especially resonant with the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. As does their focus on advocacy and community. From the coalfields to a reach that spans cultures and urban areas around the country, Roadside Theater is a powerful voice from and for all Appalachian communities.

Cover photo credit: Jim Carroll

For more information on Roadside Theater follow this link: http://roadside.org/

More information on Appalshop is at this link: https://appalshop.org/

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. 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.

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