In the shadow of Black Mountain

“We’re glad to have people come here — but we want them to know our history before they try to change things.”

That was a common refrain Rebecca Williams heard when she set about collecting stories for Way Back When: Folk Tales of Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley, an original folk play she directs.

With her husband, Jerry Pope, Williams is co-founder of Serpent Child Ensemble. And mountain newcomers and longtime residents alike stand to learn a few things about their neighbors when the production company shows its latest work at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts. Way Back When is based on the recollections of “old-timers” whose families have lived in the area for generations.

“We want to bring in the stories from people who have been here for four or five generations, as well as those who vacationed here year after year and those who’ve retired here,” says Williams.

The play features an all-local cast; a local music director/songwriter, Bert Brown; and local stories.

According to Williams, Serpent Child tries “to create theater that speaks to the audience it’s created for.” To Williams and Pope, the best way to do this is by getting involved in the very community they’re trying to reach.

“We train people to do interviews and collect stories,” Williams says, emphasizing that the resulting plays are actually partnerships with the communities that host the plays.

“We go into a community and set up a group with local people to learn about the community,” she explains. The end results, Williams hopes, will be greater understanding among a community’s varied constituents — as well as increased pride in local culture.

Such understanding comes from learning how and why people do things a certain way. Playgoers will hear about a Swannanoa Valley woman who refused to have her children vaccinated — and how, even so, “smallpox never did come here and we never did get it.”

The couple formed Serpent Child Ensemble in 1992 as a “nonprofit professional theater company dedicated to the collaborative creation of multidisciplinary, world-cultural performances,” says Williams.

She goes on to describe the company’s three-pronged approach: “We do main-stage productions, which are new works or reinterpretations of older works; we do family theater that focuses on folk stories and world mythology; and we do partnerships with local community organizations, such as the one in Black Mountain,” Williams explains.

And, according to Pope and Williams, part of Serpent Child’s purpose is to “facilitate people to use the power of theater to tell their stories … to produce original performances based on personal and social themes … and to create community-based performances with ‘nontheater’ population groups.”

Serpent Child has established partnerships with such populations in Calhoun County, Fla., and Idabel, Okla. The Florida-based project, “Cross-Ties,” got its start in 1997 and is now in its second incarnation, “Movin’ Toward the Light: Cross Ties II.” Williams says the two plays celebrate the unique and diverse cultural heritage of Calhoun County, “one of the poorest counties in the United States.”

The Idabel project, “In Tall Cotton,” began in 2000; after two years of collecting stories, a performance based on those stories will be performed this July.

Obviously, these projects tend to be ongoing, building momentum from year to year as more people get involved. “People can tell stories, collect stories, transcribe stories, act in the plays, whatever they want to do,” says Williams.

In the case of the Black Mountain production, some local fourth-graders have gotten involved through a creative-writing class. “A local creative writer has been working with these fourth-graders, and she has trained them in collecting stories, which they have written down as part of a narrative writing project for school,” says Williams. “And we are using some of these stories in the play.”

Williams also says their longterm approach to building community involvement in these plays doesn’t mean Serpent Child always has to be directly involved.

“We hope, eventually, that these groups might become self-sustaining,” she reveals.

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