Thursday, 28 August 2014

Doctor Who And The Lonesome Pine - America Part Four

"And this is where they filmed the wedding..."

Carlene, John's mother, is showing us around Big Stone Gap. A small mountain town about forty-five minutes drive away from Jonesville, it is steeped in literary and cultural history. Like the particular vision of my life, everything seems to draw parallel with a book, which is essentially what art is for. The wonder being that while staring at the art is observed, the art staring back at you is often overlooked.

Carlene was an extra in the movie adaptation of a book, Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani. The book tells of life in Big Stone Gap during the 1970's, and is in turn an adaptation of a proposal for a television series Trigiani wrote and then turned into a book. The story also revolves around the staging of a real-life play, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, which the townsfolk perform every year and is one of the longest-running plays in the United States. The play is based on a book by John Fox Jr of the same name, who lived in Big Stone Gap and whose home is now a museum. So the cultural snake eats its own tail. Keep up.

Months previously, Carlene had spent a few days a week driving up to Big Stone Gap and taking part in crowd scenes for the upcoming movie. She'd got to meet Whoopi Goldberg, Jenna Elfman, Patrick Wilson, Ashley Judd and Adriana Trigiani herself. The movie is out next year. I had taken to reading the book on the porch each evening, so there was a bizarre reflection between the places I was visiting and the locations in the book, unravelling themselves in turn.

It was a brilliantly sunny afternoon, which makes the trees turn a shade of green I couldn't even begin to describe. We drove past The Patio, a drive-in restaurant that asked you to flash your lights if you wanted someone to come outside and take your order. Days later we would visit and have milkshakes. Mine was a peanut butter variety that consisted of soft ice cream and a scoop of peanut butter, so thick it barely came out of the straw.

We stop to look at The Great Stone Face at Pennington Gap, a mountainside resembling a profile looking out into the distance of the snaking river. I later find out there's another awful name for the formation, a reminder that this land may have seen great moments but also had its share of pain.

It's interesting to see that most people in the area essentially look to be of Scandinavian, Germanic or British/Irish ancestry. There was an entire culture formed around "melungeons", the origin of the word allegedly being that of the french "melange" or mixture. They are now seen as a tri-racial group of people, a mix of African, Iberian and Native American who for the longest time were segregated in their own communities. Legends and rumour abounded of their origins, from the lost tribe of Roanoke to extraterrestials. Completely ignoring of course, the entire conceit of the United States as a country of immigrants.

I am always fascinated by the other, or what is seen as exotic. That people with the same mix of blood running through them as me (although granted, my mother's French ancestry makes me a little less swarthy and in my travels I've been able to fit into the box of non-descript European) would be given a status of mistrust, legend and segregation is a powerful idea, and one that in the area seems to be for the most part over.

We arrive at Big Stone Gap and visit the state-run liquor store. The alcohol laws here are strict, and it amuses me that bullets are more readily available in supermarkets than alcohol. Although John wisely points out, alcohol and ammunition are not a great mix. I am carded and denied wine in a restaurant due to forgetting my passport, and a few days later we are told that although we can buy beer and alcopops, wine is only available via a four mile drive into the next state. A juxtaposition to our travels through Morocco, where alcohol is prohibited but more than readily available to tourists with money. At least America seems to be sticking to its bizarre principles.

Our tour of Big Stone Gap would put any Hollywood tour to shame, and my ego cannot wait for the movie to be released so I can show off to anyone who cares to listen. Carlene shows us the pharmacy, church and baseball field, all locations in the play. Just to make your head spin even further, the book dramatises a real account of Elizabeth Taylor choking on a chicken bone while visiting Big Stone Gap, and the baseball field is used as the setting for the fictional parade in her honour.

The best part of our visit is peering through the gates of the June Tolliver Playhouse, an open-air theatre where The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine is staged each season. As Carlene explains the part of the film where the location is used, the woman in charge of the place happens to walk in and invites us to look around. The playhouse is spectacular in its simplicity, with a large painted backdrop of what is the real mountain view behind it, and planety of trees to capture the mountain feel of the play.

A couple of days later we are sat in the audience to watch the play, and as the person who has travelled the furthest to see it, I am called up to the stage and given a gift. It is a fairy stone, a natural phenomenon of a cross-shaped piece of rock with bearing the legend that when the fairies heard that Jesus had died, they wept, and their tears turned into these stones. In yet another moment of synchronicity, the woods where this supposedly happen and the fairy stones belong is close to John's father's home, which we will be visiting in a few days.

For being an amateur local production, the play is excellently acted and a lot of fun. It borrows from the Pygmalion myth (AKA My Fair Lady), with an educated man from the city falling for a young mountain girl and educating her so she can seek a better life. It has action, drama, comedy and great music. A teenaged girl with a banjo sings during the interlude, and I can only think that if she was transported to London and sang in cafes, the hipsters would eat her up and she'd be on the main stage at Reading festival by the time the year was out.

I'm invited back on stage, along with John, during the court scene, where we act as members of the jury. It's great fun to be up there and afterwards we receive a certificate for taking part. When the play is over, a little girl who was part of the runs up to me and asks if I am really from London. She squeals with delight and asks if I watch Doctor Who. Her bag is emblazoned with TARDIS and Adventure Time badges. Another little boy tells me the cast can sign my programme, which is a thinly veiled way of telling me he wants to sign it. I tell him he was the best thing in the play, and he tells me he dreams of living in London.

At some point I forgot what it meant to have been in a small town, away from the rest of the world, with only the television and books showing me a greater world outside, where men who flew and time travelled symbolised an escape, a place where dreams happened and there was infinite possibility. I watch the bare twinkling lights of sparsely placed houses on the way home through the darkness, and smile at the bow that has looped around the ribbon that is my life.

- Jonathan Pizarro.

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