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View all of Issue 2: "Who"

Toy Soldiers and Parking Lots: Participatory Theater with White Rural Virginians


Remnants from a Civil War reenactment scene in the play Good Old Boys. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Remnants from a Civil War reenactment scene in the play Good Old Boys. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Editor’s Note
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The Good Old Boys project by A Blade of Grass Fellow ashley sparks explores the archetype of the “good old boy” and the intersection of race, class, and gender. sparks describes a good old boy as both an individual: “honest, hard-working (sometimes working paycheck to paycheck), enjoys living off the land, loves his momma, God, and country;” and as a network: “those men are a little more complicated—making handshake deals behind closed doors, holdin’ onto political power, and most likely a county sheriff is gonna look the other way when one of them breaks the law, though laws may not apply to these men.” This article addresses who was involved in the creation of the work and the rural, white men it was intended for. Selections from the Good Old Boys script interspersed between commentary illustrate key points.


Good Old Boys is a deeply personal examination of ashley’s hometown in Augusta County, Virginia of the men she spent countless childhood mornings hanging out with at the nearby 7-11, and of the “death rattle of white, male privilege,” as she explains. The national conversation on whiteness and white supremacy since the election of Donald Trump elevated the urgency of the project, which began with a simple question, “What is your definition of a good old boy?” It evolved into a complex struggle between complacency, compassion, and confrontation. During the creation of the script, ashley wrote, “The country is becoming more divided. We are losing our ability to sit and have a conversation across difference. Good Old Boys explores that complexity and leans into conversations across age, class, and political ideology.” This project is about the power of socially engaged art to push through the armor we have created in order to have the difficult conversations that many of us, particularly white folks, avoid having. Here’s how the play is set up:

SETTING
A parking lot in front of a 7-11 or an interstate gas station. The audience may come and go, as at any public place of business.

The set includes coolers and lawn chairs that mark the perimeter of parking. There is a pile of children’s toys including a broken robot, miniature Civil War army men, two miniature grills set up with an elaborate diorama of the Shenandoah Valley built out of saltine crackers, sugar wafers, Little Debbie snacks, and peanut butter. A musician surrounded by vintage gas station signs sits in a rocking chair. 

TIME OF DAY
pre-dawn or sunset

FOR COMMUNITY DIALOGUES
This play can be read at gas stations, in living rooms, or on carports. It is designed for audiences of seven to twenty people gathered in a circle. Episodes can be read to spark conversations on the topics evoked.

CHARACTERS
Uncle Jackson: A community narrator, elder, patriarch; also plays The Michael boys’ momma and their daddy, and Pastor Carmichael, who sometimes frames and asks the questions (not a facilitator).

John John: Musician and sometimes facilitator of conversations.

Abe Michael: Younger brother. Drives a truck. More sentimental. Also plays Sheriff Davis Coburn.

Caleb Michael: Older brother. Veteran. Drives a vintage race car that belonged to his father. Sentimental and restrained. Also plays County Commissioner Andrew Early.

If a community reading, either John John or a fifth person reads the stage directions.

Doing the project in ashley’s childhood community was important. As a white artist engaged in social practice around the intersections of race, class, and gender, ashley working with other white people reinforced a key tenant of anti-racist organizing—white people should engage in understanding racism, its history, and its impact without relying on people of color to feed them that understanding.1 For ashley, place was inextricably linked to who was involved in the creation of the Good Old Boys project and who the work was for.

ashley workshopped the project by presenting drafts of the script in front of audiences to test ideas and refine content. ashley reflects, “The process of workshopping the script was actually the work of engagement and uprooting racism.” Workshopping took place in many iterations, in intimate settings where participants or audiences had a chance to deeply explore the content with each other. Who was part of developing the script and who the script was presented to were vital elements in ashley’s process, just as important as the quality of the performance itself.

History is a main character in the play. The characters and narratives created over a century of well-crafted and strategic ideology are present in the script to address racism and white supremacy. This became especially important after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that ashley and I attended. Witnessing hundreds of white people carry the confederate flag alongside the Nazi flag and other overt symbols of hatred and racism reinforced the urgency to trace racist ideology historically.

In the following script segment, ashley highlights the historical characters and events that feed the good old boy narrative, particularly of the white men in Augusta County, who voted against secession but suffered greatly during the Civil War when much of the farm land and animals (“the Breadbasket of the Confederacy”) were burned to the ground by the Union army. Much of the text comes from verbatim interviews. How white people in this region of Virginia have internalized that narrative and how that narrative has shaped the identity of the Southern good old boy is a thread in the project’s tapestry.

In a Hardee's parking lot, Dale Burleyson, narrator and musician in Good Old Boys, starts the performance with a song. The play was performed in front of intimate audiences and incorporated humor and The Dukes of Hazzard as a pop culture metaphor. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

In a Hardee’s parking lot, Dale Burleyson, narrator and musician in Good Old Boys, starts the performance with a song. The play was performed in front of intimate audiences and incorporated humor and The Dukes of Hazzard as a pop culture metaphor. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

EPISODE 2: History is Child’s Play
SCENE: I Ain’t Playing with Dolls . . . I’m Remembering.

We see two brothers, Caleb and Abe (inspired by Bo and Luke Duke of The Dukes of Hazzard), at eleven and fourteen years old. Caleb is dressed in a gray button-down shirt. They reenact the Battle of New Market. The Shenandoah Valley was the site for many Civil War battles, this one particularly brutal for the number of teenager soldiers from the nearby Virginia Military Institute who died in battle.

Caleb: The date is May 15, 1864. Line up your men over here, see you are coming down from the North and prepare for a whoopin’. You are running the men for Union General Franz Sigel. And I’m the Confederate General John C. Breckinridge.

Abe (doing a terrible German accent as Sigel, a German immigrant to the US): Well men! Let’s move ‘em out and down. Line up! Kill the rebels!

A battle ensues between the two brothers. Abe/Sigel’s men start to win. Abe is very proud and makes an excessive amount of cannon fire noises. Caleb’s side doesn’t retreat but slowly falls to the ground.

Caleb (as Breckinridge in a thick upper crust Southern accent): I hate to do this . . . but put the boys in and may God forgive me for the order!

Caleb takes out another set of miniature men, even smaller since they represent teenagers.

Abe (as himself): What boys?

Caleb (as himself): VMI Cadets. There were a bunch of young soldiers from VMI that were there. They weren’t much older than me.

Another prominent thread is the lived experiences of the men ashley is closest to: her father, his friends that she grew up around, her childhood friends, and prominent local figures like the county commissioner. Spending many hours visiting with them, hanging out at 5 a.m. at the local 7-11 where they spend most mornings, having conversations that were vulnerable and intimate with her dad, and asking questions of men that pulled back the veil of toxic masculinity and white supremacy were all part of the process. Sometimes interviews were incorporated into the script verbatim, other times large themes (like the Lost Cause narrative2) were translated through Caleb and Abe.

The characters in Good Old Boys use toy figurines to reenact a Civil War battle in a performance of Episode 2: History is Child's Play. Image courtesy of RAVA Films.

The characters in Good Old Boys use toy figurines to reenact a Civil War battle in a performance of Episode 2: History is Child’s Play. Image courtesy of RAVA Films.

The work required much emotional labor and vulnerabilty. It was deeply personal, speaking to the internal transformations we all must undertake in order to transform our communities away from the social ills that plague us. ashley has described her own internal battle when hearing an interviewee justify slavery, captured in the excerpt that follows. She stayed present enough with him to plant a seed of transformation, rather than yelling or shaming him into a different perspective or, worse, just shutting down the conversation altogether. This dynamic played out countless times across racial, class, and gender lines in the pursuit of honest conversations that informed the script and ultimately the honest conversations ashley elicited through audience engagement.

Abe: What were they fighting for?

Caleb: They wanted to protect their land. Their homes.

Abe: From what?

Caleb: Yankee invaders.

Abe: What were the Yankees fighting for?

Caleb: Ideals.

Abe: What are ideals?

Caleb: Ideas you believe in.

Abe: What were their ideals?

Caleb: Preserving the tyranny of the federal government. They were savages.

Music: Battle Hymn of the Republic

Abe: In school we learned they were fighting to preserve the Union, for law and order. The idea of democracy and a UNITED States. That was the dream of the founding fathers—a union of different states. If you don’t like the election results you can’t just throw out the process and secede. 

Caleb: We—including your ancestors—were fighting for liberty and to overcome tyranny, just like when our founding fathers were fighting against England.

Abe: Whose liberty?

Caleb: Huh?

Abe: Whose liberty were we fighting for?

Caleb: Farmers! Men—who done knowd what’s right and how to run things. The North was threatened by our financial success. They knew the South was growing stronger and didn’t want to see that happen.

Abe: How was the South growing stronger?

Caleb: We were a thriving agricultural economy.

Abe: Because we had free labor.

Caleb: Slavery would have died out due to mechanization in a matter of years. And that’s not the point.

Abe (in German immigrant accent): It’s not? How are you gonna separate economics from slavery? How are you gonna separate liberty from abolition?

Caleb: Whoa—you’re really gettin’ into your character huh? Mister General Sigel.

Abe (proud): We took a field trip to Harper’s Ferry and I did a report on Abraham Lincoln. I watched a movie about Lincoln instead of reading a book. 

Caleb: Our family fought to protect our land and our way of life.

Abe: What was our way of life?

Caleb: We worked the land! Didn’t they take you on a field trip to the Frontier Culture Museum? Our families was too poor to be slave owners. We were renting the land we was on then, just like we’s renting this trailer now.

Abe: Why didn’t they send the men who owned the land? Who owned the slaves?

Caleb: Rich men paid for the war and made plans for the war.

Abe: Then why we gotta fight their war?

Caleb: Men gotta fight for the social institutions that they believe in.

Abe: Is that the same as fighting for ideals? Our folks didn’t own slaves so why were we fighting to defend slavery?

Caleb: We weren’t fighting for slavery, we were fighting against Yankee invaders. Besides, there were black confederate soldiers.

Abe: As cooks and ditch diggers. Why are you defending slavery?

Caleb: I’m not defending slavery, I’m defending my family.

Abe (channeling his momma): Momma says . . . Love the sinner and hate the sin. We can love our way back relatives, but that don’t mean we gotta be proud of ‘em.   

The audience represents the final character in Good Old Boys, as important to the goals of the project as the people who contributed to the script. ashley created the framework of a playful and interactive space to examine southern white male identity, class, and privilege and to intimately discuss the impact of changing demographics and class divides on the archetype of the good old boy. Her approach included keeping audience sizes low and intimate, and using humor and The Dukes of Hazzard as a relatable popular culture metaphor. The explicit intention was to create anti-racist, intersectional work (connecting issues across race, class, and gender) that addressed the lived experiences of southern white men head on, for southern, predominantly white, audiences.

ashley wove a story that connected history to honest lived experiences and filtered them through her artistic lens, incorporating comedy, satire, and playfulness in order to draw audiences into difficult conversations. Audience engagement and hospitality was written directly into the performance of the play, not as a separate post-play dialogue. From the moment audiences arrived they were greeted by ensemble members who acted more like party hosts than actors. Audiences were offered something to drink, perhaps an old-fashioned ice cream cup, or served a potluck lunch. Characters interrupted scenes to ask the audience questions about the topics raised and facilitated conversations.

Interrupting the scene, the narrator and musician engage the audience in a conversation about the impact of the war and of slavery before continuing.

Uncle Jackson: October 1864, The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley. We were the Breadbasket of the Confederacy and we were devastated. Families who didn’t have anything to begin with were left with less.

John John: Holding the ashes of rage and tears. Cries of babies and women who had done nothing wrong other than being born on the south side of the Mason-Dixon line. They say smoke filled this valley, like when God burned Sodom. Our boys that made it out and marched homeward were looking back, an Army of Lot’s Wives covered in soot, and instead of turning to salt they became fire. Rage and regret began festering inside.

Uncle Jackson: There are mornings I look over the hills and mountains of this valley and wonder what’s right below the surface. The bones and ashes that create fertile farmland to feed families.

John John: The ghosts of those who were innocent and those who weren’t. Do we reap them into the wheat? The corn? The soybeans?

Uncle Jackson: Sometimes the men we love fight for dark causes.

John John: What does liberty and justice for all mean when our economic success is based on slavery?

Director Lady (shifts audience into conversation): Here we are, over 150 years later. How is the history of the Civil War still impacting us?

After a Civil War reenactment scene in Good Old Boys, actor Derek Roguski pauses the performance, held outside a local brewery, to facilitate a conversation with the audience about the impact the Civil War had on people in the region. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

After a Civil War reenactment scene in Good Old Boys, actor Derek Roguski pauses the performance, held outside a local brewery, to facilitate a conversation with the audience about the impact the Civil War had on people in the region. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

The project is about meeting folks where they are, metaphorically and literally. The play was read by community members in ashley’s family’s carport, performed by theater professionals in parking lots, and workshopped for churchgoers after Sunday service as part of their Bible study. And over four days in September 2018, nine fully realized performances took place at eight different locations including a local brewery, the BP gas station/Subway, the Hardee’s parking lot, and the nearby 7-11.

I participated in a 5 a.m. reading at a BP station where ashley’s dad and his friends have met for years. She asked a friend of her father, a Civil War re-enactor she had already interviewed for the script, to participate in a reading that morning because he wouldn’t be able to make it to the full sharing of the script in a couple days. It was the scene about the Civil War. He easily agreed. Both men read the script with earnestness and grace, allowing the words to thoughtfully chew in their mouths. From there, we had a jumping off point to talk about slavery, plantation life, its ties to wealth-building today, and our different perspectives on why the Civil War was fought and how it impacted life in Augusta County.

When asked if he and his friends discussed topics like this, the friend quickly said no. This is the crux of ashley’s project. How can the power of storytelling, theater, and performance inspire conversations about difficult topics from sexism, the impact of the Civil War, and how slavery has shaped our society today, to immigration, labor, and the values of the good old boy?


Notes:

1. For more information on organizing white people to work toward racial justice, see www.showingupforracialjustice.org.

2. The Lost Cause narrative depicts the South’s defeat during the Civil War as noble and promotes the ideas that the Civil War was a battle of states’ rights fought valiantly by the noble and deity-like generals and that slavery played a small, benign reason for secession.


Trey Hartt is the Project Director for Performing Statistics, leading its strategic growth as a national initiative. He has been engaged in the process of undoing racism in his personal and professional lives for more than a decade, particularly focused on dismantling white supremacy. In 2006, he began working with The Conciliation Project, a social justice theater company that facilitates dialogues on racism. He is the former Deputy Director of ART 180, a past president of Alternate ROOTS, and the cofounder of the Community Justice Film Series and Community Justice Network. Trey has a BFA in Theater Performance from Virginia Commonwealth University.

ashley sparks is a southern theater maker, engagement strategist, and facilitator. She has worked nationally with companies such as Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, ArtSpot Productions in New Orleans, and PearlDamour. As a director, she focuses on creating site-specific devised work and participatory events that may involve line dancing, community singing, or ice cream sandwiches for all. She makes space for folks to rehearse difficult conversations about the intersections of race, gender, and faith. She is a white lady deeply committed to having intimate and challenging conversations about race in support of movements toward collective liberation.

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ABOG MagazineAshley SparksIdentityRacial JusticeTrey Hartt
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