On stage: ‘9 to 5’ in 2019


“I’ve never met a man I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man who I couldn’t kick his ass if he didn’t treat me with the respect he should” -Dolly Parton in an interview


The largely sold-out play “9 to 5” at Oak Ridge Playhouse, a small-town community theater is nearing its last weekend and may well have sold out by the time I run this.
I point this out because theater reviews for me aren’t so much about whether to see the play as they are about what the play makes me think of. After all, most of this blog’s readers aren’t necessarily able to seen the plays in the Knoxville area. And with this play, there’s plenty to think about.

Community theater shows tend to bank on nostalgia and recognizability. Indeed the play “9 to 5” is both nostalgic and recognizable, especially in East Tennessee where it’s lyricist Dolly Parton owns or at least has her name on, a theme park, a water park and several dinner theaters. The film it’s based on came out in 1980 and the play takes place in the late 1970s as Dolly Parton herself, who appears by projection at the play’s beginning emphasizes that time period, a time of typewriters and secretaries and when “the boss didn’t care about no women’s movement unless it was under his desk.”

See, that’s what makes this play so interesting now, as opposed to 2008 when it originated in Los Angeles. It’s something that can be popular at a community theater still, but is something typically only associated with college productions and small regional theater shows: a story with a topical message about the current world. And, perhaps, unintentionally so.

The original film was intended by Jane Fonda as a work of advocacy, even if she was trying to avoid it being too preachy by cloaking the film’s point in farcical antics. As a side note, I am happy that Oak Ridge Playhouse used the US version rather than the UK version, keeping in the fantasy dream sequences, parodying gangster films, westerns and Disney films that was one of the film’s highlights.

As another side note, Dolly is one of the few people who can enjoy a friendship with “Hanoi Jane,” openly embrace an LGBTQ fanbase and still enjoy a thriving amusement park business in the middle of a red state.

Anyway, reviews of the original musical, many years later in 2008 and later when it debuted on Broadway tended to portray it as “harmless” at best or dated at worst. And given the play’s explicit setting in the 1970s, people might consider it like they originally did “Hairspray”: a campy musical about stuff we’ve already overcome.

But then in 2017 #metoo hit, making sexual abuse a topic on people’s minds again. And this play was positioned to already be a response.

With Dolly writing music and lyrics, the character of Doralee who she originally played, naturally seems to have gotten an expanded role. And, as in the film she’s a sexual harassment survivor. The show, especially in Parton’s lyrics makes more light of sexual harassment than people probably would if it was written now. But the show gets away with it because there’s no mistaking where the play’s sympathies ultimately lie, given Hart being bound and kidnapped and the empowerment anthems the leads belt throughout the rest of the show.

And to be fair Dolly, a businesswoman who seems to have won by being at least outwardly nice to everyone, doesn’t call herself “feminist” or endorse political candidates. But there’s no mistaking where she stands.

I’m calling this focus on sexual harassment, somewhat greater than in the original, “unintentional” on the part of the creators because Doralee’s expanded role was probably just because Dolly was writing the music and lyrics, so giving her songs like her rather meta “I am” song, “Backwoods Barbie” was probably just what appealed to her. But now it reads differently.

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The Scopes Trial was about money


Scopes and Rappleyea
Photo from Smithsonian Institution Scopes, left and Rappleyea, right, apparently on their way to a Harry Potter convention.

I did not originally want this blog to be about religion. Or about politics. But I’ve found that I’ve written a book that intrudes on both of those without being about either. Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail is a memoir of hiking with my Dad. But in researching the Laurel Snow trails, I hit on something regarding an event people love to site: The Scopes Trial. And along with much else, the book will give you a great overview on the real reasons that trial happened.

There are two versions of the Scopes trial, in which a man was convicted of teaching evolution, a crime at the time. There’s one story promoted by people who know history, and the other by people who want to promote either science or religion and love simplified narratives.

People imagine history as being simplified play of ideas bashing each other over the head. That’s a myth, and I should know it as should others. There are people and personal egos. There is land and resources. There’s that constant thing people always talk about and act about: money.

As a side note, completely unrelated to money, my book, available on Amazon is an excellent guide to the plants and animals of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau as well as a quirky father-son bonding story. Get yours today!

OK, so some of the proceeds will go to me, while some will go to the Cumberland Trail Conference, which maintains the trail. But I was posting the above to point out just how much money has to do with things that are supposedly just about ideas.

I’ll admit, in my book, there was an error confusing a mine entrance visible from Laurel-Snow Pocket Wilderness with a coke oven. I have this on the authority of Bob Fulcher and other Cumberland Trail State Park staff. But it was that mining company that led to the trial happening. That’s something you usually don’t see in textbooks.

Karl Marx, however much else he might have gotten wrong, at least understood that money motivates conflicts. But now we get even supposed Marxists, writing whole articles where the role of Dayton’s mining and other businesses gets no mention at all.

To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan at the trial, people don’t think about the things they don’t think about.

I believe in evolution. The scientific evidence supports it. I do not, however, believe the account of the Scopes Trial people assume is true. And plus, the parts of the story that always gets cropped out of the trial story involves copperhead bites, mine explosions, people with names like George Washington Rappleyea and an Englishman named Titus Salt. Shouldn’t all that also be part of the story?

Anyway, here’s the myth:

  1. The Tennessee General Assembly made the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching that people were descended from other animals and expected to enforce it.
  2. The people of Dayton were genuinely mad at John Scopes for teaching about evolution and the trial was their idea.
  3. Dayton was an isolated pre-industrial rural town.
  4. The trial failed as a publicity stunt.

Here’s the truth:

  1. The Butler Act was one of the least thought through pieces of legislation ever written as there were no Creationist textbooks at the time. By default teachers had to use evolutionist ones.
  2. A mining engineer native to New York was stuck in town due to a copperhead bite and became the head of a struggling mining company, saw an ad from the ACLU offering to represent anyone convicted under the law. He promoted the idea to other local business leaders who agreed. They asked Scopes if he’d be a defendant and he agreed too. He never testified and never went to jail, because really, the trial wasn’t about him. What was it about? Here’s what F.E. Robinson, a drug store owner at the time said.

“Dayton would be woefully remiss in her duty to herself not to grasp this hour of her lime-light incandescence and make of it an occasion for self-aggrandizement with some incontrovertible facts about her products and natural resources.”

  1. Dayton like much of Appalachia at that time was actually an industrial coal mining and coke oven area, admittedly one on its last legs, due to those mine explosions. It was founded by an Englishman named Titus Salt.
  2. Thanks to the trial, the town got Bryan College, so it didn’t fail.

The man who shot MLK slept here: Brushy Mountain


With all my posts about Frozen Head, I’ve avoided posting about some of the more grim stuff nearby. The area has held two prisons, one current and on my route, the other abandoned and a little off it. It’s the old one that’s been on my mind.

Brushy Mountain
Brushy Mountain Prison as it was in 2012.

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This year marks the assassination of a man hated in his own lifetime but beloved now. He deserves the love he has now and more. I am speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., a man who left his mark on our nation’s history and, for that matter, it’s landscape.

martin_luther_king2c_jr
This face just might ring a bell.

That’s not just to mention the signs that marked “whites” and “colored” coming down, just one of the many goals that man had. Markers and monuments show the places he walked, because people want to walk there and imagine him there too.

Even places far from where he walked bear his name. You can see many of them here.

But there are other kinds of people who make history. Case in point James Earl Ray, MLK’s murderer.

330px-james_earl_ray
This face probably doesn’t even if the name does.

I’ve passed and even stopped, in 2012, at the castle-like structure of the prison where he spent his life after murdering Martin Luther King: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, now abandoned. I love hiking at Frozen Head State Park, so it tends to be near my route. It gets a mention in my book, but I never dwelt on James Earl Ray. I never discussed him with anyone during my travels there except for Goyo, a Mexican exchange student who happened to join us one day when we passed it.

“Do you know about Martin Luther King?” I asked him.

He nodded. And that was that. I never dwelt on him or the good doctor in the pages of my memoir Wildly Strolling Along involving father-son bonding on the Cumberland Trail.

James Earl Ray reportedly shot King in 1968. He always claimed he was just part of a broader conspiracy to kill the Civil Rights leader and King’s family also believed that.

That still doesn’t make him a hero though, just one of many villains working together. No one save a few alt-righters would probably really want to commemorate him. And, thankfully, no one does.
It’s true, killers hold a perverse fascination for the public, and they did even back in the 60s and 70s. And I’d be lying if I claimed they didn’t for me as well, looking at someone with whom I share a common bond of humanity, but who went in a different direction.

Ray’s history though doesn’t give the kind of good man gone wrong chills so many murderers do though. He was a crook, plain and simple, involved in armed robbery before his most infamous crime. His obsession with white-ruled nations in Africa seems predictably racist.

The most notable thing he did in all his time after being arrested was escape, drawing in FBI agents and inspiring a whole, strenuous race based on mocking how little distance he covered, the Barkley Marathon.

But it’s a fleeting fascination. No one wants to point out with historical markers his escape route.

I know because I visit the area fairly often and I’m glad there’s no sign for that miserable fellow that I’ve noticed anywhere. He doesn’t deserve any. I want to look at Frozen Head State Park’s charming waterfalls, its flowers, its views of the surrounding mountains and escape from the prejudice and strife of the outside world. People who go to Frozen Head. to walk, run, camp, ride horses and play on playgrounds or fish do not need a reminder of that man and his nearby escape from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.

The main remnant of the prison inside the park is the Prison Mine Trail, the site of a mutiny by the prisoners who operated it according to Augusta Grove Bell’s Circling Windrock Mountain, long before Ray’s time.
Ray is by far not the only person who every ended up there. I could go on and on about the stories of cruelty and crazy escapes. It makes me rather sad that the only tours there right now are Paranormal Tours and not tours involving real history, which would probably be far more interesting. Which brings me to the people running the place now. So what’s the place’s big draw, now? Whiskey.

In 2009 the old prison was decommissioned. In that same year the Tennessee General Assembly amended the statute that limited the distillation of drinkable spirits to just three counties. After the amendment, distillery businesses were established in 41 additional counties. A new bill was signed by the governor that allows for distilling in any county, including those of dry status. Distilling in a dry county such as Morgan County is now possible and will begin at the old Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in the near future.

Brushy is the perfect place for a little Tennessee whiskey to do its time.

Of course. What to do with an old prison site tied to racially troubling history? The same way to solve every other problem here in Tennessee! Whiskey! If it had been Dr. King who had spent time there and not his murderer, the place would not be trying to become the next Gatlinburg. It could try to be serious instead.

But there’s a part of me that prefers Ray’s memory be trampled by people drunk on local booze on the edge of charming natural beauty. That seems somehow fitting. So here’s to James Earl Ray: May we remember to forget you.

What I Can Say About Sandra Bland


It’s hard for me to write about the Sandra Bland case. I can’t pretend to be an expert on police procedures or being black in the USA. I’ve edited videos and photos but can’t always tell if someone else has.

I wish I was more of a medical expert here. I suspect that the police holding her neglected her health and let her die over the course of three days, maybe because they were afraid to let the public know about her injuries. Maybe she became asphyxiated during an epileptic seizure that left her in a bad position. I have my doubts that it was suicide. The few young activists I’ve known who have been in jail wanted to stay alive in order to tell their stories. Then again, all the ones I’ve known have been white. Maybe they figured they could go on with life.  See the link on point one below for an argument in favor of ruling it a suicide.

I also doubt that it was deliberate murder. That particular jail had been in trouble for so many violations recently, including being too easy to escape, that I doubt its guards would ever scheme such an elaborate conspiracy unless they felt forced to do so. Negligence just seems more plausible for such incompetents.

Anyway, here’s what I can say:

1. Even if it was suicide, which I’ll admit is likely, the general public should show more sympathy about the causes that drove her to suicide.

2. The jail neglected to enforce Texas’s rules about watching possibly suicidal prisoners. We know that for sure. If you believe in law and order, then hold the law accountable to its own rules.

3. Even if I’m no expert, this woman is. I can share her words.

4. Police shouldn’t fear civilian cameras. That’s probably the one thing that makes me the most annoyed about the two different videos, one of them shot by a bystander at a good distance away who was still told to leave. Police aren’t always wrong. They aren’t always right either. Often in these comment threads, commenters tell people to obey and be respectful to the cops. Sometimes these commenters go as far as saying that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. That kind of statement should apply equally to the police themselves.

5. I’m tired of a media obsessed with narratives about devils and saints. Internet commenters are even worse. This happens all the time with crime reporting and it sickens me. No one is perfect. Few people are perfectly evil.

What disturbs me most in this particular case was the red herring that the medical examiner found THC in Bland’s body. Smearing her corpse with accusations of reefer madness is sickening. Plenty of people, black, white, rich and poor alike use cannabis for various reasons, including use of it’s derivatives as a treatment for epilepsy, which Bland had. I suspect hypocrisy on the part of many of her accusers here.

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