By Wendy Carson
Between 1935 and 1943, The Pack Horse Library Project employed around 200 women to deliver books and other reading material to the around 100,000 residents of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Kentucky. These “Book Women” faced numerous dangers and hardships in their rounds but were spurred on by the delight of bringing books to people who might never have read or seen one before. Local actress and author J. E. Hibbard imagines a portrait of four of these women as well as their mule, Nellie, as they prepare for a visit from First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, in “Ballad of the Book Women.”
Four actresses each play one of the Book Women, as well as other roles to flesh out the story. They also sing songs that help give the flavor of the play’s time and location. Not only do these ladies have to deal with weather, thieves, and the sheer ruggedness of the terrain, they also frequently come up against those who are not only illiterate but also wary of what they see as the evils of reading and writing.
MaryAnne Matthews plays Edna, the feisty elder of the group, but shines as the character of Hal, a crusty loner who secretly looks forward to the visits for food, friendship, and stories that are read to him.
Chelsea Mullen portrays Mandy, who is always making scrapbooks to prevent any piece of reading material from going to waste. Her sweetly delightful turn as one of the few school teachers reminds us of the dire need in the area, rejoicing that her class finally received two books from which to learn, while having sticks in the dirt as the only method for students to practice their writing.
Maria Meschi gives up not only Flossie, the leader of the group, but also spectacularly brings Eleanor Roosevelt to life as she tours the country bringing attention to the efforts.
Tracy Nakigozi is a sheer delight to behold as spunky young Rose. Aside from this endearing character, she is the puppet master of Nellie, which she brings to life in many charming ways. I honestly could have watched an entire show made up of her adventures with the mule.
As timely as this production is – with various books under attack today, especially in rural areas – I am greatly saddened by the sparse ticket sales. The talents involved deserve crowds with only a handful of tickets left, not barely enough audience members to outnumber them. Please, go see this delightful show.
Directed by Lucy Fields and presented by Theatre Unchained and IndyFringe for DivaFest 2023, “Ballad of the Book Women” runs Thursday through Saturday, May 4-6, 8 p.m., at IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis (just off Mass Ave.). For info and tickets, see indyfringe.org.
DivaFest also presents activities around the Book Women story: Enjoy a “Scrapbooking Extravaganza” crafting hour at 7 p.m. before Thursday’s performance; attend a Post-Show Discussion after Friday’s performance with Cat Cardwell of IndyReads joining cast and crew to discuss expanding adult literacy. Details at the Fringe DivaFest page.