The Poem's the Thing
Some of the bluegrass is black. So says Frank X Walker, author of last year's successful Affrilachia, a collection of poems.
This year's UK theater season now offers a taste of the non-traditional with the presentation of a play based on Walker's book. It is being adapted for the stage by director Nancy Jones and choreographer Aminata Baruti.
Jones (UK Department of Theatre professor) explains their unconvential approach to the work, "Whereas a normal play has a story, an introduction, exposition, and complications that all lead towards a climax, this has nothing to with that sort of traditional structure."
Instead, she says, "I wanted to use a lot of movement, sound, some singing, additional music, and dance. I knew I wanted to infuse all those elements into the poetry, as ways to link the poems to create this one hour performance piece that isn't a story but gives you a mood, it gives you an emotional feeling, it might take you to a place, but in an abstract way."
A cooperative effort, the germ of the idea to base a play on poetry rather than a story came from Geraldine Maschio, chair of the UK theatre department, which wanted to continue a commitment to diversity that was reflected in last season's presentation of Desegregation.
After consulting with Walker, who responded enthusiastically, she turned to Jones, knowing of her background in choreography and talent for innovation, to expand the idea into a production, with the help of Baruti.
Jones is enthusiastic about the potential reach of the play, "I think that for a lot of young people, they haven't had many theater experiences that excite them or interest them, and I think this is one that will really do both of those things. Beyond that, I think this is an important piece for the community, too. It is a voice that is not often heard on the stage, so it is something that a lot of members of the community will also be excited by."
As for the production, Jones explains, "One of the metaphors that we are using, that works its way into the set design, is that of a quilt. When you think of a quilt you think of these abstract pieces of color and these little pieces that in and of themselves have one specific meaning, and when you put them together into this grand shape, you get story, you get history, you get family, you get community from the idea of a quilt. And when you put all these forms together that is the message you convey, family, identity, community."
Walker is a co-founder of the Affrilachian poets; the term refers to a group of African-American poets of Appalachian origins, and includes other popular local poets such as Nikky Finney.
Kentucky author Gurney Norman (and one of Walker's former professors at UK), has said, "If Appalachia is a geographically defined place, then Affrilachia can be thought of as an idea, or spiritual realm in which people share experience of historic struggle against oppression."
Walker says, "There has been a consistency of 'goodness', or a positive energy, from the reactions of people to the readings and the book. It is great to have the play extend the life of that energy."
Jones comments, "Of course the poetry is about his [Walker's] experience of being African-American in Appalachia, but I think some people expect some sort of real 'rural' experience, you know, 'mountain' experience when they hear that word 'Affrilachia'... but a lot of it is very urban, and more than anything, it is personal, it is about Frank's personal experience in this world, in the place that he grew up in and represents now. Because of this, I think that this performance will really speak to a lot of people whose voice isn't normally heard, not only on the UK stage, but on any stage."
She adds, "I wouldn't say that this is a piece that has a moral message or a theme in that regard. But I would say is that for people who haven't thought about what the African experience is like in this community, hopefully they will come out of the piece thinking, 'Wow, I didn't know people thought that way,' and, 'I didn't know that was true.' It will open a whole culture up to a lot of people in the audience. It will confirm for other members that 'finally someone is saying what I thought all along.' So, it can be a confirmation, it can be a door opening, so that their whole world can be broadened."
As for working with Walker, Jones has found that "a bit intimidating, but also very exciting. Frank is really an incredible artist; in addition to that, he has been extremely generous. He's given us huge freedom. He's stepped back and let us find our way through the poetry."
After viewing some rehearsals, Walker has nothing but praise: "I think that the production is very true to the text, and it has supplemented what the words are saying, not distracted from them. It is wonderful to watch the work being built organically... Being a big fan of young people, and younger artists in particular, it has been a great pleasure to watch this happen. It really takes my breath away. They have done a fine job in representing the work, and in showcasing their own talents. I am eagerly awaiting the first curtain."
Affrilachia will be presented at UK's Briggs Theatre in the UK Fine Arts Building on Rose Street. Thursday (Nov 16) performance at 8 pm; Friday at 5 pm and 8 pm; Saturday at 8 pm; and Sunday at 2 pm and 5 pm. Tickets (859) 257-4929. $11.00 for general admission.
Frank X Walker is also a contributor to , a new literary magazine sponsored by Ace Weekly and Joseph-Beth Booksellers. He will participate in the reading to be held November 30 at 7 pm at Joseph-Beth.