Editorial: Outdoor drama could help preserve our heritage
A summer tradition where I grew up was the annual production of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” a stage adaptation of a novel by John Fox Jr.
The story, which spans 30 years, details the Appalachian feud between the Tolliver and Falin families. Meanwhile, outside interests are attracted to the region’s coal resources — and their encroachment forever transforms the area’s landscape and culture.
Fellow southerner John Fox, a Geneseo village trustee, has confirmed that “he’s no kin” to the novelist.
The book was a top ten best-selling novel in 1908 and 1909 and was the inspiration for three movie adaptations — including a 1916 silent film by Cecil B. DeMille and a 1936 version starring Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray.
The stage version is performed in the summer in a permanent outdoor theater in downtown Big Stone Gap. It provides a little extra summer income to local actors and folk musicians. No tourist brochure about Wise County, Va. fails to mention the play.
I went to college in Eastern Kentucky, near Jenny Wiley State Park, which was home to the “Jenny Wiley Story,” another outdoor pageant. A lot of my college friends performed in the play — as well as a rotating “summer stock” of Broadway musicals. There was a play a night on stage for two solid months, and was one of the chief attractions of the park.
The plot centers around the gruesome true story of a white settler who was kidnapped in 1789 by Native Americans, who murdered two of her accompanying children. It ends with her daring escape along a raging river valley.
Followers of local history might find this quite familiar. A young girl named Mary Jemison watched as her family was scalped by the Seneca in 1755 near modern day Pittsburgh, Pa.
Along with a boy from another family, she was adopted and raised by the Seneca — marrying a Delaware named Sheninjee who took her 700 miles overland to the Genesee Valley. Later widowed, she settled in Little Beard’s Town near present-day Cuylerville, married a Seneca and had six children.
Mary Jemison’s story would make the perfect outdoor drama, and Letchworth State Park’s hundreds of thousands of visitors each year would easily support a summer theater troupe, performing the local pageant and other plays.
Jemison’s story is but one compelling narrative of this region. A local play could tell the tale of the Treaty of the Big Tree, the Wadsworth family, the Revolutionary war, the waves of immigration, the enormous 19th century wheat industry, the coming of the canals and highways, or Clara Barton’s establishment of the Red Cross amid Dansville’s booming resort culture.
Livingston County has a rich community theater tradition — but productions tend to be one-shot deals aimed at local audiences. An outdoor theater could be a sustainable daily production that adds value to the area’s already amazing natural attractions. Letchworth Park seems the perfect location, but one could imagine a successful outdoor theater at Murray Hill in Mount Morris, on the SUNY Geneseo campus (or at an expanded Highland Park), at Williams Park in Dansville or anywhere else with good parking and a stage with seating and lights.
A 1994 study by the North Carolina Bureau of Travel and Tourism estimates that the state’s 12 outdoor dramas draws more than $2 million in ticket sales a year. Those tourists spent an additional $17 million on other goods and services. Every dollar spent is turned over 3.5 times in the local community, meaning outdoor drama is worth $75 million to the state of North Carolina.
“People go to see these dramas to walk on the hallowed ground,” said University of North Carolina researcher Scott Parker, “as if they’re taking a pilgrimage to see the event dramatized and made real and alive to them.”
Livingston County could create its own “real and alive” evocation of history here. We certainly have enough “hallowed ground.”