Strength in numbers

There’s a different sort of energy generated when women gather without men to make art. Of course, 50 percent of the world’s population should already be aware of this — though the other half may choose to ignore, denigrate or fear that energy. Or, they could explore it: Women working together (if I may be permitted a broad brush) talk a lot more, are less hierarchical and make more decisions by consensus than a similar group of men. Mixed-gender groups — to complete this set of sweeping generalizations — often seem swayed by the male energy present.

But a fine example of what collective female energy can accomplish will be on view, this Friday night only, when the Western Carolina Women’s Coalition kicks off its comprehensive women’s conference with a new play, Strong Comes After, written by Amy Ammons Garza of Whittier, N.C. The play celebrates the lives of exceptional Western North Carolina women from the pre-European era to the present day, ending with two current Asheville residents, who will be introduced from the audience after the play. Garza tags the play a “docudrama,” because she weaves the actual words or writings of the 21 women into the narrative.

Those showcased include Elizabeth Blackwell, our country’s first woman doctor; legendary banjo and fiddle player Samantha Bumgarner (the first woman ever to record on a stringed instrument); dentist Daisy Zachary McGuire; outstanding African-American teacher Lucy Sanders Herring; Penland School founder Lucy Morgan; Lillian Exum Clement, the first woman elected to the N.C. legislature, and Gertrude Dills McKee, the first woman elected to the N.C. senate. Living honorees include Oralene Graves Simmons, the first black woman to attend the private Mars Hill College, and Helen Moseley Edington, a local teacher who’s the author of Angels Unaware: Asheville’s Women of Color (Home Press, 1996).

Visual artist Doreyl Ammons Cain, of Waynesville, will create a background for the play as it progresses, adding a unique and lovely twist to the idea of “performance art.” Working in pastels on a 30-by-7-foot blank wall, Cain will illustrate the stories unfolding downstage with what she calls “spontaneous drawing.” It won’t be the first time she’s put herself on the line: Cain has been doing this kind of work with Garza (her sister) for 10 years. They’ve performed their multicultural play, All Together Now, in various regional schools since the early ’90s. For the past three years, they’ve also offered a simpler work, Heritage Alive, featuring seventh-generation banjo player Henry Queen improvising music to Garza’s stories and Cain’s spontaneous drawings.

The Ammons sisters’ collaborations are rooted in their Jackson County mountain home, where three-year-old Amy used to watch Doreyl draw birds in the dirt road in front of their house. Their paths separated for a while when Cain began winning local art competitions and scholarships, her talent spinning her out into a larger world. Cain moved to California at 18 and eventually earned a master’s degree in biomedical illustration. Subsequent years netted her more awards, a series of exhibitions, and even a stint as a storyboard artist for Disney Inc.

But soon her instincts, which had guided her so successfully in the professional art world, began tugging her toward a new path.

“I started having this urge to come home,” she recalls, “that was so strong, I couldn’t not do it. I had to pull up my roots — I’d been in California for 30 years, so you know it was hard. But I had to do it.” She started spending weekends with her sister at Purdue University, where Garza was taking creative-writing courses. The two sisters would talk the whole weekend — about their childhood, their home and their ideas about art.

“Eventually,” Cain reports, “both of us had to come home. I feel it was my Cherokee roots, drawing me back.”

“We had moonshiners on one side of the family,” puts in Garza, “and preachers on the other. I really feel like I was called to come home. I mean, I heard a voice.” In short order, the sisters began working together, creating plays that explored and celebrated their ancestry. An essential message of these plays was, and continues to be, the importance of personal history to one’s self-esteem and the belief in one’s own creative powers.

If doing what you were meant to do can manifest itself physically, the Ammons sisters have surely discovered their true calling. Their animation belies their years; their straight speaking about matters of heart and soul is a delight. From the first encounter, there’s no doubt that they are sisters — from their matching shocks of cornsilk hair, to the way they complete each other’s thoughts and dance around ideas.

The docudrama’s title is borrowed from a phrase favored by the Ammons’ grandmother, Retter: “You have to go through it first, the bad stuff, and the strong comes after.”

“She was a real mountain woman, ” recalls Garza. “She raised nine children, and did all the farming herself after Grandpa was knocked off a railroad trestle and broke every bone in his body.” To be sure, a strong mountain aesthetic survives triumphantly in the work of Amy and Doreyl — coupled with the sisters’ dedication to the spirit of art as an agent of change.

It was Vera Guise of the Women’ s Coalition who set the wheels churning, inviting Garza to write a play for the convention.

“Twenty or 30 women met to plan it,” says Garza. “I sat and listened to them talk, to get a feeling for what they wanted, then went off to think and decide what I wanted to do.” Friend and fellow theater buff Barbara Eberly came onboard to direct the play; though confined to a wheelchair after a recent car accident, Eberly still manages to keep up with the Ammonses: “Amy wrote a bit about how World War II affected women in the work force. … I didn’t agree with her point of view, and we had a long discussion about it. In the end, we decided to put our discussion into the script.” (Need further proof of the disparity between the sexes’ working styles?)

In addition to Cain’s drawings, the play utilizes poetry, dance and music, both vocal and instrumental. The drama will feature Myrtle Driver as a mythological Cherokee woman, accompanied by her daughter, Renissa McLaughlin, and a group of eight young Cherokee dancers. lesa postell of Sylva will represent the typical Appalachian woman — whose joys and hardships she also experiences offstage: “lesa lives like my grandmother lived,” marvels Garza. “She chops her own wood, plows, and has no electricity. She’s a real mountain woman — by choice.”

The cast, supported by dancers, narrators and poets, consists of four main actors: Ann Thompson is a member of the Bryson City Smoky Mountain Community Theater and a veteran of the Ammons’ production company, Catch The Spirit; Miss Asheville 1999 — musician Amanda Dills, of the Fiddling Dills Sisters — will make her acting debut; Janet Oliver, formerly of the Actors Theater of Louisville, is co-founder of Thrice Told Storytellers, a local African-American theater troupe; and Ronnie Walker, originally from Dublin, Ireland, has toured Europe as a singer and actor.

Narration will be delivered by beloved local poet Glenis Redmond (reading her own composition, “Hats”); Teresa Eberly, a WCU theater major; and Sharon Greene, a local producer who’s making her first venture in front of the footlights.

“What leaped out to me about this script,” stresses Oliver, “was the similarity of the women and their take on life. We all have good things, along with the bad, thrown our way; you can use them for positive or negative. These women tried to use them for positive — for their race, their families and themselves.”

“I’d really like to see the men come,” author Garza notes. “If their wives are suddenly out in left field, and they think they’re going ‘feminist’ on them, this will help them understand what’s going on. It might save a marriage.” Seeing the Ammons sisters weave their magic so seamlessly — or, more to the point, actually witnessing the art resulting from that communal effort — it becomes clear that this play might just save a place for itself in local history, as well.

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