The late Gabriel Gracia Marquez begins his novel “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” by describing a ragged band of gypsies setting up camp on the edge of a village each spring and who, with great fanfare, would display the new inventions of the world. When their leader, Melquides, demonstrated his magical irons (magnets) he proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s only a matter of waking up their souls.”
Twenty four summers ago a ragged band of gypsies showed up on the edge of Shepherdstown with enough clang and clatter and lightning and thunder to wake the town dog sleeping in the middle of German Street. And as it has come to pass, Shepherdstown has never been the same. I was lucky enough to find their camp early on courtesy of OG, (original gypsy) Mollie Brown, who led me by way of a complimentary ticket to a series of Sam Shepard vignettes in which she and fellow OG Joe Costa were performing. And I was stunned! Just as stunned as those villagers who had witnessed the miracle of magnets…and Melquides turned out to be Ed Herendeen. But it wasn’t science or inventions he was demonstrating; no, it was the raw, searing power and sweeping range of human emotion caught up and twisted by life, and played out on stage. As I say, I was stunned; so much so that afterwards I went out and read everything Sam Shepard ever wrote. But even larger is that I saw theater completely different from that moment on; no longer as entertainment but, in a deeper sense, as Art. I had felt the direct and unmistakable gut churning power of Art. And it changed my life as that was the tipping point in which I realized that I, too, had the heart of a gypsy, an artist. Such is the magic of gypsies.
Nowadays the gypsies are a bit more polished, one could say (a few lost ponytails included), but I don’t hold that against anyone and it certainly hasn’t affected their ability to bring the magic. And true to those very first plays in the un-air conditioned old gym with a complimentary bottle of spring water and a wish for a cool breeze to arise out of nowhere, right on through to the contemporary ambience of the new Marinoff Theater, the festival’s mission of developing cutting edge contemporary storytelling has not waivered one iota. That’s twenty four solid years of addressing current issues, gloves off and daring to focus on often overlooked and uncomfortable facets of our contemporary existence. This is Art by mirror and what we see may not be pretty, but it is beautiful in that it touches us and makes us think… and that is a gigantic accomplishment. That’s why this Festival is so important and that’s why it increases the quality of life for everyone who attends, especially those folks who live right here in Shepherdstown.
I’ve watched Shepherdstown grow with the festival and I’ve watched as summers have gone from overloaded hay wagons meandering down German Street, dodging sleeping dogs, to this lively and exciting arts scene with galleries and restaurants and venues of all shapes and sizes swept up in the excitement. The whole town buzzes and talk on the street centers on the plays. Creativity is everywhere. I’ve come to see this festival as a celebration of Truth played out by gypsies who come every summer and bring with them this huge swirling ball of creative energy. It’s very exciting to be around a group of dedicated, professional artists and to feel their energy and share creative exchanges; not many small towns can offer that.
Another endearing aspect of CATF for me has been the many great friendships I have developed with other professional artists over the years including writers, techies, designers, directors, and actors. Many of whom I remain close with even after all these years. It’s the closest I get to having a feeling of belonging to a family of artists; and since all artists (and gypsies) are basically self-imposed orphans, those friendships bring me much joy and comfort.
And while you can plainly see the beneficial effects CATF has had on local businesses, the local Art scene and the University, I think the largest, most positive and far-reaching effect CATF has had is on the thinking of the individuals who have attended plays or spent the summer as part of the theater company. I personally feel like my decision to become a full time artist was greatly influenced by my interaction with CATF, and that was the most positive decision I’ve ever made. While I don’t believe or expect that everyone finds those kinds of seeds there, CATF is one of the few places I know of where they are made readily available if you care to gather and plant them. I have to wonder how many other souls have carried away with them some sort of inspiration which, in turn, has expanded their thinking to a much larger understanding. I’ll wager many….many, many. And believe it or not, that is the true beginnings of a better world.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago this was all set into motion by the vision and determination of one man, Shepherdstown’s own King Of The Gypsies, Ed Herendeen, who like Melquiades, has proven that things do have a life of their own and that it is only a matter of waking up their souls. That’s no small feat. And Ed has done it by starting this creative fire, and then nurturing it, and then feeding it as much fuel as it can stand… and then looking for more to burn.
So Thank You Ed, for twenty four years of gypsies, inspiration, and fire….and for waking up souls. Especially mine.
Scott is a self-taught artist and nationally recognized steel sculptor from right across the river in Antietam, MD. Past CATF exhibitions include: 1996 Flames; 1998 East West Highway (commissioned visual component to Carry The Tiger To The Mountain); 2007 A Retrospective; and now this year’s Scrap Yard Salon. www.cawoodart.com
His work can currently be seen during the Festival in Room 113 of the Center for Contemporary Arts/I (92 W. Campus Drive). The gallery for the “Scrap Yard Salon” is open before and after performances of Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons.
PART ONE: Researched, interviewed, and edited by Sharon J. Anderson, CATF Trustee/Professional Storyteller.
CATF: How did you find the story of Gait City?
CHRISTINA: I found the story of Gait City when I created it. Gait City is the story of a fictitious place that was inspired by research I did about Oregon and Seattle and the stories of what happened, particularly to people of color, and more specifically – black people – in the Pacific Northwest region.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been constructing cities and narratives from scratch. Often those cities are created from actual events that happened from different time periods.
CATF: What inspired you to combine exclusionary laws and cult behavior in “The Ashes Under Gait City”?
CHRISTINA: I’ve always been interested in cults. When I was in fifth grade, I remember watching a Jonestown biography on TV that totally freaked me out. I was only 10 years old and got such an eerie feeling whenever I heard the voice of Jim Jones hovering over this group of people. I never lost the essence of that feeling, so I’ve always wanted to write about cults in some capacity.
I also remember that cult in California [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven’s_Gate_(religious_group] where members committed suicide and were found with sheets over their heads, all wearing sneakers. If I remember correctly, the members were mostly white people with one person of color and one black person. The conversation, at least in my immediate community, was about, “Who was this black woman?” “Why are black people joining these cults?” So I started doing research on cults and blacks.
When I started writing “Gait City” I thought it would be interesting to have a black woman – an Internet guru, Simone the Believer — find out that the history of Gait City once included black people and then want to go to Oregon to create a black community. Over the course of the play, this community slowly takes on the essence or eeriness of a cult, however, at the beginning of the play, Simone the Believer is not a cult leader.
CATF: Why is she called, “Simone the Believer”?
CHRISTINA: She is someone who people hire to believe in them because she has this essence and this aura about her. She gives off this essence of taking care of people and instilling in them the confidence to take on different parts of their lives and redefining those parts. She believes in people and their capabilities and gifts.
CATF: Is she patterned after Oprah Winfrey?
CHRISTINA: She’s patterned after Iyanla Vanzant and a little bit of Erykah Badu. Iyanla is a motivational speaker and has her own show on the OWN network. She puts out books and teachings on how to redefine yourself. Erykah is a singer-songwriter, activist and actress.
CATF: Does Simone unwittingly become a cult leader?
CHRISTINA: When I set out to write this play, I knew I didn’t want anyone to say or think the word, “cult”. I set out to write a play where people come together and when they unify, it has the essence of a cult, but no character ever says the word, “cult” or believes that a cult is what they are a part of. When you get swept up into something like this, you don’t think it’s a cult. You just want to be around people who make you feel like a member of a community. I don’t think Simone considers herself a cult leader or wants to have a cult around her. Simone wants to go to Gait City because she discovered this story of black people being pushed out. She considered it an historical injustice and she wants to correct the injustice by starting a black community. She does not set out to be a cult leader.
CATF: Jim Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple in Jonestown said that he moved his church to Guyana because it was “a place in a black country where our black members could live in peace.” Is this what “Gait City” is about?
CHRISTINA: Yes. Simone wants to go to Gait City to honor black people who were displaced. She is specifically targeting a community of people who feel like they have never had a home they can settle into.
CATF: Jim Jones’ son said this about the People’s Temple: “It allowed me as a black man to hold my head up high.”
CHRISTINA: You feel empowered when you can exist in a space that not only allows you to be your most authentic self, but also encourages you to be your most authentic self.
CHRISTINA: That can be the argument, right? As the writer, I don’t say that these characters are in danger or the situation they are in is troubling. I don’t think any of them think they are in danger, and I don’t think Simone thinks she’s putting them in danger. You aren’t sure what Simone is doing to these people. You aren’t sure who gets roped in when. Hopefully by the end of the play, you don’t know if they’re going to make it, you don’t know if they’re going to implode, but you do know they have committed to this thing and the length of time they can sustain it will be questionable.
CHRISTINA: Interesting. The story that comes to mind for me is Ursula K Le Guin’s, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about a utopian city whose good fortune requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery. This child somehow keeps the town unified. Is my play a “chilling tale gone mad”? I don’t know. I wrote the play because I was interested in delving into cities and who has the right to claim property and territory and who has the right to live in that space and create community.
CATF: The cover story in the June 2014 Atlantic entitled, “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates [READ THE ARTICLE HERE], includes these quotes: “The essence of American racism is disrespect” and, “Liberals today view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality.”
CHRISTINA: In the play, Simone talks about disregard. When I write about Black-American culture in the 21st century, I realize that the “isms” of the 70’s and 80’s are now more nuanced. “Micro-aggression” is a new term that’s circulating. It isn’t outright aggression or blatant racism that a black person is confronted with daily. It’s little reminders, little jabs like, “otherness” and “repression”. That’s how all the “isms” function today. Very rarely do we use seriously blatant racist language or derogatory slurs. We just say that the person is “on the fringe” or “speaks freely”. These are very subtle, nuanced ways to express disrespect and disregard.
CATF: As a white person, was I born racist?
CHRISTINA: I would like to believe in my heart that no one is. We all have to live in a society where things are presented or marketed to us – we aren’t born to hate. It is what we learn and the different ways we learn it. We all grow up in different ways in different parts of the country and experience different things. I don’t believe that anyone is born racist any more than anyone is born to be angered by racism. There are undoubtedly tons of essays that agree or disagree with me, but I’m more interested as a writer to see how societal practices and influences can affect our lives or the way we talk about certain things or the way we ignore certain things. I’m not so interested in the origins of racism as much as I’m interested in how it affects us whether we know it or not.