For me, learning was like finding gold.
The quote is attributed to Charlotte Andrews Stephens, the first African-American teacher in the Little Rock school district. Born in 1854, she taught for 70 years, but she certainly could never have expected her name would come up in Digging Up Arkansas, a piece of theater designed to educate children 66 years after her death.
Digging Up Arkansas has finished its run for this school year, but two more productions that are part of the Arkansas History Through the Arts program are on the calendar:
Down the Dirt Road Blues
When: 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Jan. 24-26
Where: Starr Theater, Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
About: Down the Dirt Road Blues tells the story of one song’s journey through American history and culture, with stops in Arkansas along the way. It begins with a melody carried in the heart of a man chained in the hold of a slave ship. Using era-appropriate instruments as accompaniment, blues artist Spencer Bohren moves the African melody from Delta cotton fields to urban Memphis, Tenn., and on to the Appalachian mountains, the studios of Nashville, the genesis of the rock ‘n’ roll era, and the folk boom and British invasion of the 1960s.
Songs of the Ozarks: Old Time/New Time
When: 10 a.m. Jan. 19
Where: Faulkner Performing Arts Center, University of Arkansas
About: The majority of Ozark settlers hailed from the British Isles. They brought with them their musical traditions and lyrical language, the foundation of the Ozark dialect. Musicians Roy Pilgrim and Aviva Steigmeyer (Ozark Highballers) pay homage to this original Ozark sound, taking an historical approach to render traditional songs with authenticity and spirit. Donna and Kelly Mulhollan (Still on the Hill) use songs from the oral tradition as inspiration to create contemporary compositions that respect these musical roots while continuing to tell the history of the region and its people. Square dance caller Steve Green and eight dancers will join in the Ozark fun, showcasing traditional dance forms with student participation.
— Source: Walton Arts Center
The play -- produced by Trike Theatre and the Walton Arts Center this fall for 3,613 Northwest Arkansas students -- was born eight years ago around a table piled with history books and surrounded by some of the most creative actors, playwrights and educators in the region. As Patricia Relph, arts learning specialist at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, remembers it, Mike Thomas, the playwright, injected humor into the history to make it memorable, and Jules Taylor, a musician and actor, used her guitar to find the old songs that would tell the stories, as Jason Suel joined in on the harmonica and Relph added her guitar.
"What an honor to be a scholar and get to do that research," Relph said. "I love history, but it's finding the letters, finding the funny, finding the authentic, that brings it to life."
"Basically, teachers kept telling us that teaching Arkansas history was challenging to them," said Laura Goodwin, the arts center's vice president for learning and engagement, about the impetus behind Digging Up Arkansas. "Many found it difficult to engage students in the subject and sustain their interest.
"We knew that a theater performance could tell a story of Arkansas history the students would care about and remember," she continued. "By aligning it with Arkansas history curriculum, we thought that we could support teachers to engage students in the concepts and facts that educators find important."
The 150-plus students watching the 10:15 a.m. performance Sept. 22 at the Peel Mansion Museum in Bentonville didn't know -- or need to know -- any of that. All they knew was that three strong actors and musicians had their (pretty much) undivided attention from the moment the first notes of music were struck on Taylor's guitar.
"I have had the unique opportunity to be part of the [Digging Up Arkansas] team since the beginning," Taylor said. "I have played two different roles, gotten to go to every county in Arkansas, and when this tour is over, I will have performed over 500 times" -- and more than 52,000 youngsters will have seen the play.
Taylor said, for her, the biggest challenge might have seem to be "keeping it fresh," but "because the casts have changed over the years, I've gotten to perform with different actors. That always makes it unique because they bring a new perspective. This cast has been particularly unique because it is the first time we have had three women."
Joanna Bennett, born and raised in Indianapolis, is one of two actors new to Digging Up Arkansas.
"I auditioned with Kassie Misiewicz, our director, via Skype for a chance to be a part of DUA 2017," Bennett said. "This is my debut performance with Trike Theatre and my very first Digging Up Arkansas run -- though I hope I get the chance to reprise my performance in the years to come!"
As the show opens, Bennett, Taylor and Jaddy Ciucci -- who moved to Northwest Arkansas in August to join her partner, a student in the master of fine arts acting program at the University of Arkansas -- introduce themselves as writers for the Works Progress Administration, tasked with putting together the history of Arkansas for a presentation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. En route, a mishap mixes up the crates containing all the chronicles. The students in the audience must help the actors sort out the items -- ranging from replicas of Caddo and Quapaw pottery to vinyl record albums -- to return them to their proper crates, which start with the prehistory of Arkansas and continue to 1936.
Along the way, four cornerstones of Arkansas history are planted in children's minds: Communication -- how the earliest visitors to the state had to learn to communicate with the native residents; cooperation -- how they had to work together for the state to grow and prosper; courage -- for instance, how brother fought brother during the Civil War; and culture -- how roads, schools and electricity changed life in Arkansas.
"I hope our kids take away our four Cs of DUA," Bennett said. "To me, the real richness of this state's amazing history truly blossoms when you approach our past from these unique points of view. We must learn to speak true, work together, brave difficulties and create at every opportunity if we are to leave behind a beautiful world at the end of our own story. I hope they contemplate this as they grow and take pride in Arkansas' history."
As creators of Digging Up Arkansas -- the Walton Arts Center and Trike Theatre -- wondered how to measure its effect on its audiences. Relph explained that a student survey put together in cooperation with the University of Arkansas proves they learn more than pride in their state.
"It's impressive," Goodwin said of the results.
"The close proximity of the students to the stage allows us to interact with them and hold their attention," Ciucci said. "Seeing those honest -- and no audience is more honest than children -- reactions to history, and then hearing how the information has been retained in our post-show discussions with the students, lets me know we've done our part in reinforcing what is being taught in the classroom. And I hope we inspire life-long learners who ask questions about the past, seek their own answers, and determine what that means moving into the future."
NAN Our Town on 10/05/2017
Print Headline: Music, mirth and memory