Revelations: Appalachian Resiliency in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People is an hour-long theatrical presentation, written and produced by folklorist Carrie Nobel Kline. Actors perform monologues taken from Kline’s ethnographic research on Gay West Virginians. The performance has characters ranging from young adults to the elderly.
As a dramatic performance taken directly from field notes and performed before many of Kline’s original collaborators, Revelations opens up further exploration of reciprocal ethnography between researcher, the folk, and theatrical performance.
Background: Drama as Outreach
Drama has been a means for marginalized people to reach those who may be suspicious of them by presenting the stories in the safely detached zone of the stage, where the audience watching is given room to observe and reflect on issues from a distance. Nevertheless, some issues were not permitted expression onstage in America before Stonewall (1969). Theatrical presentations of Gay people in positive ways were illegal for much of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, two productions were designed to call attention to the plight of homosexual people: The Captive (Lesbian identity) and The Drag (Gay men). Both were considered scandalous, roundly condemned, and banned.
Over time, underground theater productions paved the way for the end to censorship of Gay material, and Gay-themed performances finally gained legitimacy after Stonewall. In the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century, freedom of expression on stage has allowed previously forbidden topics to be openly expressed outside of major cities and into venues across America. Troupes such as Pomo Afro Homos and Split Britches Lesbian Feminist Theatre Company, and productions such as Angels in America (a drama about AIDS), Fierce Love: Stories from Black Gay Life, Faith and Dancing (a woman’s transition from Southern Baptist to femme Lesbian), and The Laramie Project (concerning the torture and death of Matthew Shepard) brought LGBTQ issues to the stage across the USA and beyond. Although these productions caused controversy, the general public became much more open to the issues they raised.
Ethnography as Theater
Revelations was first performed on stage in 2001. The play debuted in Huntington, West Virginia, where it received favorable reviews, and then to other cities in the Appalachian region. Kline describes her play: “This 13-person reader’s theatre performance illuminates these West Virginians’ determination to express themselves in a way that is worthy of respect and admiration.”
Revelations differs from other LGBTQ-themed works in that it is dramatic performance of ethnographic data. Kline conducted interviews with people who were mostly from rural West Virginia (one person is from outside of Appalachia). “I was looking at the roots of people’s strength, the roots of people’s ability to survive,” she said. “And I was wondering if there were elements of Appalachian culture, if there are things that people teach their children, that help them to be strong and resilient” as they faced the challenge of being Gay in Appalachia. The following is an excerpt from the play, spoken by a Lesbian character, “Sandy”:
When I felt like giving up, I would go for a ride and come back in the woods here and sit by a tree, because you knew if you were just in the same hollow that your grandpa was and he survived it, that you would too. I used to go up to the cemetery where he was buried and just talk to him and say, “If you can do it, I can do it.”
Dual Identities in Other Works
Revelations takes on two stigmatized identities: being Gay in rural America, and being hillbilly (alternative: hilljack, considered unsophisticated and stupid due to being Appalachian). In dealing with dual identities, Revelations is similar to the musical Surviving the Nian (being Gay and Chinese during the Chinese New Year’s celebration) by Melissa Li and Abe Rybeck, and performed by the Theater Offensive in Boston. In terms of rural Gay culture, Revelations addresses similar issues as Farm Family, a documentary by T. Joe Murray about rural Gay men.
Reciprocal Ethnographic Drama
Revelations generates multiple performance frames. The first frame would be the interviews Kline conducted. Her collaborators’ performances of their lived experiences during the ethnographic process then become the basis for the staged roles played by actors in Revelations, a second and overtly theatrical frame. A third and more intimate frame of performance occurs when actors encounter members of the audience who are the very people the actors portray, which in turn informs future productions of the second frame.
Reciprocal ethnography (an ethnographic approach proposed by folklorist Elaine Lawless) allows collaborators to give the researcher feedback on observations the researcher makes about them. Although the researcher is not required to conform to the wishes of the collaborators, reciprocal ethnography does imply that the researcher has the responsibility to listen and adjust the ethnographic process by incorporating feedback. In terms of Revelations, reciprocal ethnography plays an important role in integrating performance of self-as-theatrical-persona with the original self-as-lived-experience in ways that unstaged written texts cannot.
When the play first opened, it was not unusual for collaborators to witness for themselves how their lived experiences as Lesbian, Gay male, and Trans individuals were presented by actors within a dramatic frame. Some of collaborators spoke with those same actors and their families and friends after the show. This meeting of the folk with their living representations allows the drama to double back as actors encounter the living sources of their roles, which further transforms the dynamics for the next performance.
Black, Kate and Rhorer, Marc A. “Out In The Mountains: Exploring Lesbian and Gay Lives.”
Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association. 7:18-28, 1995.
Kline, Carrie Nobel. Appalachian Resiliency in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People: Oral Testimonials. Marshall University. James E. Morrow Library Special Collections, Huntington, West Virginia, 2000-2001.
Lawlaess, Elaine. Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries of Wholeness Through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993.
Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the
American Consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1978.