PHILADELPHIA — Leaning across a small table in a crowded "in" restaurant near the University of Pennsylvania, Roadside Theatre's Ron Short spoke with frustration.
"A lot of times, people expect us to be the very stereotypes that we're tryin' to bust all to hell," Short said. "(They) expect us to be slow-witted, to dance at the drop of a hat and fit into their image of what mountain people should be: quaint, forgotten relics of folklore.
"We're not. We have a heritage. Tradition. We're a part of a cultural history and we're adding to it."
From the coal fields of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia, Roadside Theatre brings Short's autobiographical play "South of the Mountain," an account of an Appalachian family through two generations, to the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Thursday.
Short and fellow ensemble member Tom Bledsoe, both 42, hail from the mountains of southwest Virginia. Big men, heavily bearded, they seem to dwarf their surroundings. Bledsoe's red hair flows down his back. Short is dark, with intense blue eyes. Their deceptively soft rural accents, strange to a city ear, have a tangy warmth. (A third Roadside Theatre member, Nancy Jeffrey, will join them in L.A.)
Short's defensiveness is not surprising. On the campaign trail in West Virginia during the 1960 presidential primary, Sen. John F. Kennedy and the national media discovered poverty in America. The images of hopeless destitution in the Appalachians so shocked the candidate that the issue became part of his campaign.
Federal programs were instituted, but progress has been slow, due in part to how alien the Appalachian people--often caricatured as jug-toting hillbillies--have been to the rest of the country.
A rugged, individualist population, the Appalachian mountaineers for centuries eked out a hard, isolated existence on the land, surviving legendary feuds and bloody violence, of little interest to most of the nation. When big-industry discovered the area's vast resources of coal, exploitation of the people and destruction of the land led to an exodus of millions of inhabitants who fled to Eastern and Northern states, from the late '40s through the '60s.
The family unit, a fundamental source of strength to the mountaineers, was devastated.
Founded in 1974, the touring Roadside Theatre is part of Kentucky's Appalshop, which began as a federally funded arts program in 1969, evolving to become a way of salvaging and nurturing a regional identity.
"A large part of the identity of the region is struggle," Short said. "Hard times. It's built right into the very soul of the people.
"My Daddy was one of the few people that I know who went back. We just sort of pulled it in and we lived hard on the land. We had nothin', but we had more in ways than most people who went off to the city. We still had structure, we had the land and we weathered it as a family."
It was music that brought musician Bledsoe back to the mountains. "While I was away (in the Navy in the late '60s), I ran into some people in Washington state playing the kind of music I'd heard my relatives play," Bledsoe said. "I needed to hear these people playing music so far away from home to realize there was a connection there. I wanted to get back home and find out what it was.
"Ron and I have pretty similar backgrounds. His grandfather and mine were both ol' regular Baptist preachers and they were storytellers. When I was growing up we'd go down to the barn and Grandpa was there, poking in the dirt with his cane and chewing tobacco and spittin' and he'd tell us a story."
The colorful tales the Roadside members heard as children--some pure myth, others a narrative history--vary between black tragedy and rich, earthy humor. Using the old stories, creating new ones, Roadside has taken the generations-old storytelling tradition, told in voices and music heard nowhere else, throughout the United States and to Europe and Canada.
"I guess it really happened in the '60s during the time when Appalachia became synonymous with poverty," Short said. "We began to realize that the pictures we made of ourselves were different than the pictures the guys from Life magazine took and slapped on the cover.
"We begin to realize that the stories we knew and the way we told 'em were different than the way they were put into folklore collections by people who got their doctorates studyin' the folks in the mountains.
"So, a group of (us) down there decided to take control of our own image of ourselves. We come to realize that this intangible thing--self respect--was probably the most important thing we had."
"We were questioning a lot of things," Bledsoe said. "Our educations, our value systems, our families. Figuring out what we wanted to hold on to. Realizing you can hold on to a lot of things. You can be an educated person and still play old-time music. You can be a hillbilly and still enjoy classical music and theater."
Short hopes people who see Roadside, whoever they are, will find themselves somewhere in it. "If it's only the surface they see, if they fail to see beyond the way we talk or dress, we've failed."