At its core, theatre has always been about telling the story. In community theatres across the country people gather to enjoy the timeless stories and songs of musicals and comedies of yore. Shakespeare festivals deliver The Bard’s tales each year for countless aficionados. Hollywood cashes in with million dollar re-workings of narratives by blind Greek poets. Even my grandmother is religious about taking time each day for her “stories” – the serial soap operas of daytime television.
Stories are the way that we are able to make sense of our complicated world. We use them to give context to our experiences, to teach lessons, to keep our history alive. Italian futurist Italo Calvino asks, “Who are we, who is each of us if not a combinatoria of experiences, information…things imagined?”
In Way Back When it is the stories of the Swannanoa Valley that are on display. Through compiling interviews with more than thirty lifelong residents of the Swannanoa/Black Mountain area, Rebecca Williams and husband Jerry Pope have constructed a beautiful stage work honoring the cultural history of our Southern Appalachian Region.
This is the third year that Black Mountain Center for the Arts has presented Way Back When. It has become a very real way for the members of this community to come together and celebrate the legacy of their locality. The audience is comprised of a wide range of generational experience. The cast and crew reflect the same. The stories are, at turns, reflective of the struggles of living a century ago and a celebration of the joy and fellowship found through community.
Jerry Pope also directs this production, and seems to have a keen sense of the power of these stories. He juxtaposes spirited square-dancing street scenes with telling interludes addressing the realities of segregation. The portrayal of a simpler life a century past is tempered with an understanding of the hardships inherent in rural living.
In a small space, such as the main floor gallery of the Black Mountain Center for the Arts, a full-on musical extravaganza with ten actors and a four-piece band could easily overwhelm a closely quartered audience. But in this respect, Pope’s theatrical acumen serves the play in fine regard. Scenes are staged creatively, and individual stories benefit from creative casting, often with the youngsters of the cast playing adults and vice versa. Shadow puppets, simple miming and ensemble movement all lend a sense of fantastic discovery to the production.
One of the highlights of Way Back When is the original music by Bert Brown. Brown serves as bandleader in the show, setting the tone for many scenes with appropriate guitar underscoring. He is joined in the band by Greg Price on bass and trumpet, Tom Hyde on fiddle and Noreen Long on banjo. The band, on the preview night that I encountered the show, was well-rehearsed—although I was overwhelmed by the volume of the bass, which ended up masking the banjo almost entirely.
I was particularly engaged by Brown’s tribute to the Beacon Mill, casualty of a great fire this past November. The Beacon stood as a pillar of the Swannanoa community for most of this past century, employing many of the valley’s residents. Brown’s testimonial, penned this past autumn while the fire still blazed, captures the sense of loss felt by the area while at the same time celebrating the generations of people brought together in the shadow of the Mill.
A few acting performances are also worthy of mention. Rick Wallace and Katherine Daugherty Debrow play the action in ‘Waltz of Atonement’ with simplicity and honesty, making it the emotional highpoint of the evening. DiAnna Ritola sets the standard for the cast in her ability to engage fully with each character she portrays. The two youngsters in the production, Sarah Elizabeth Hannush-Carter and Timmy Brown, deserve special praise. They play a number of different roles, often called upon to portray characters much older than themselves. Both bring youthful energy and vibrancy to the stage.
Way Back When is a treat for audience members of all ages. I would encourage everyone to take the time to see this evening of local music and storytelling. Bring the family, and enjoy the magic of the theatre in its most basic form—stories of community, by the community, for the community.