DivaFest: Play honors Depression-era ‘Book Women’

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.

IndyFringe: Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales

This is part of IndyFringe 2022, Aug. 18-Sept. 4 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Local youth ensemble Agape Theater Company goes with something more whimsical than their usual serious projects with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales,” a musical by Mary Hall Surface and David Maddux that presents familiar fairy tales as they would be told in the mountains of rural Virginia or North Carolina.

This show is also a little different for Agape as it highlights its younger performers, which enhances the innocent fun of the stories’ presentation. In this production, we get three tales you’ve heard before, but not quite like this:

In “Jack and the Wonder Bean,” directed by Brynn Hensley, crafty Jack (Rachel Majorins) climbs the beanstalk to encounter a huge Giantess (Anastasia Lucia, with puppet support by Nate and Jacob Osburn) and escapes back home to his Ma (Harmony Quinn), bringing goods including a magic Hen (Caroline Hildebrand) and enchanted Fiddle (Evangeline Hillebrand).

In the hoe-down song-and-dance number “The Sow and Her Three Pigs,” directed by Kiron Branine and Rebekah Barajas, narrators Ellie Barajas and Rachel Majorins tell of a Mama-pig (Laney Ballard) who worries what her offspring will do after she is gone. Martha (Nora Moster) and Mary (Joanna Barajas) go cheap on building materials, while Nancy (Eden Majorins) finds something even stronger than bricks. Here comes the Fox (Flannery Partain), hungry for bacon. The simple set includes a cloud-wagon for deceased piggies to sit on while awaiting their relatives’ fate, while most of the cast get involved in the do-si-dos (the dance, not the cookie).

Finally, we get the Cinderella variant, “Catskins,” directed by Grant Scott-Miller. An orphan girl (Lacey Pierce) finds a home with a Farmer (Aubri Cottrell) and his Wife (Harmony Quinn). When the Wife dies, the Farmer, embittered by grief, becomes abusive. The spirit of her adopted mother comes to Catskins’ aid with the help of a magic trunk, and the girl ends up a servant to a fine Lady (Anastasia Lucia) and her Daughter (Flannery Partain). It happens that in that land, a Rich Boy (Jacob Osburn) is holding fancy dances to find himself a bride. Our heroine is a bit crafty and doesn’t need talking mice to help her in this interesting version of the old tale.

The presentation is fun and entertaining, and the Giantess puppet is impressive. Remaining performances are 1:45 p.m. Saturday and 5:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 27-28, in the Basile Auditorium at the Athenaeum.

IndyFringe: A Life of Sorrow — The Life and Times of Carter Stanley

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In 1966, a man looks back on his life and career playing “hillbilly music.” He is Carter Stanley of the legendary Stanley Brothers, who, along with performers such as Bill Monroe, brought Bluegrass out of Appalachia and into our radios and concert halls.

Historian and fellow Virginian Gary Reid presents this one-man show he has developed over the last 10 years. He strums the guitar and sings some “high lonesome” verses, but this is storytelling, not a concert. Still, what stories he has to tell! We hear of Carter and Ralph Stanley’s upbringing, the father who left — twice — and the bizarre way they got their home up on Smith Ridge in the Clinch Mountains. Then, after Carter’s service in World War II, comes the music career, starting with a home-town radio show. He goes from getting into trouble for copying one of Monroe’s songs to eventually playing in his band. Along the way, we hear about characters like Suicide Jones, Fiddlin’ Powers and Pee Wee Lambert.

“I have an independent streak about me!” he declares, but notes “the music was always first.” While he didn’t stray far from the Gospel, he would still enjoy a jar of Dewey’s Finest moonshine on occasion.

Reid’s gentle manner draws you in and keeps you. Like the music, this isn’t anything loud or fancy, but it comes out just right. For anyone with an interest in the roots of “roots” music, “A Life of Sorrow” is highly recommended. When anyone asks me what I liked in the Fringe this year, this show comes first to mind.

Last performances are Friday and Saturday, Aug. 23-24, at the Firefighter’s Hall, 748 Massachusetts Ave. Reid can also be seen around the festival area, playing guitar or selling CDs of classic Bluegrass. Tell him howdy for us.