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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Gallaher Bend Greenway, Oak Ridge, TN


On a short winter day sometimes you just want to escape from town (Oak Ridge Tennessee) and climb a gravel path, up and down hills through woods and fields, looking down from above at Melton Hill Lake. If so, Gallaher Bend Greenway may be the one for you. At least you won’t get lost. It’s just one path the whole way and, due to study of the surrounding area, you can’t leave it. The trail is a gravel road, but closed to traffic starting at Clark Center Park. The 4.5 mile route is not flat at all though but quite hilly, making for good exercise if you’re running.

The trail’s highlight is the open field area shown above, from which you can look down at Melton Hill Lake below, bright blue on a clear day amid the gray of winter.

With big places to go like Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberlands nearby, places like Gallaher Bend Greenway may feel too mundane for me to share, but there’s a place for simple trips as well as long ones. I look forward to a year full of enjoying many different trails: showy and understated, long and short near to me and a ways away, and you can look forward to reading about the full range of them here.

Northern green frog (Lithobates clamatans)


You can sometimes see just the skipping of a frog-sized shape. Other times though you can find their big-eyed faces peaking up out of the water or the leaves. I count myself lucky when I catch them like that.
Yvonne stayed silent, wanting to conteplate nature in a respectful, worshipful way. Silent too, I crept slowly and silently too, but my approach was that of a hunter. I wanted to capture the big-eyed stair, the dull back, the bright green under them.
In my experience frogs are either still or hop or swim out of the way. Rarely have I ever seen one just leisurely stroll.
But I must have been doing something right. Only after quite a few pictures did this one jump out of the way.
Green frogs are not always green or in this case, not always all across their bodies. The main thing that separates them from bullfrogs is the fold that extends down their backs. They also lack the square or round spots of pickerel or leopard frogs. If all that came off as gibberish to you, and to you they’re all frogs, that was the same for me until I read up on these hopping adorables in The Amphibians of Tennessee, a book I recommend.
Their mating call, which they make at age two onward when seeking mates sounds like a banjo and you can hear it for half a mile.
I spotted this and another frog recently at the University of Tennessee Arboretum in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The Arboretum is not, precisely, wilderness, but rather spot with various experimental and exhibit areas, among them “small wetlands” which are shallow ponds. These are the best spots, as you can imagine, for frogs.

St John’s wort on Melton Lake Greenway


St. Johnswort

Bright yellow bushes of shrubby St. John’s wort greet visitors to the Melton Lake Grenway’s Boardwalk in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in summer. The bright yellow flowers are still distinctive against the dim evening light and the dark blue of Melton Hill Lake.

Melton Lake Greenway’s boardwalk isn’t for everyone. It’s right next to a coal fired steam plant, which might be enough of a turn off for many to not even consider what the trail has to offer.

But what it has to offer at this time of year is bright yellow St. John’s wort flowers, many birds and fishing, although none of the fellows I saw seemed to catch anything. As Yvonne put it, the area looks like a marsh on the edge of the ocean, even if all it borders on is a narrow lake.

St. Johnswort is a reminder of how lost I am at identifying and talking about plants without my dear old “kickass botanist” Dad. For more on our relationship read our book., but in short, he’s been around to identify every plant around us on every hike for most of my life since I was toddling around barely taller than the roots in the trails we walked.

After hearing recently from him the bushes that had so delighted Yvonne and I was St. Johnswort, I quickly did some research and saw, the US Department of Agriculture says it is an exotic plant that crowds out native species and poisons livestock. So, in an earlier version of this post, one that earned me three “likes” already I wrote:

“A non-Tennessee plant on an artificial lake, surrounded by power cables and towers. And yet I somehow still enjoy the landscape.”

All well and good, but wrong. As Dad pointed out and I should have figured out, there are multiple species of St. Johnswort and the one we were looking at, which grows as a bush, i.e. Shrubby St. Johnswort was native.

St. John's wort by dim light.
St. John’s wort by dim light.

At any rate, most people if they think about any variety of plant at all, think about it as an herbal tea that’s supposed to make people feel emotionally better, curing anxiety and depression. It often works for me, although Yvonne loathes its taste.

Farragut, Tenn.


An bright orange T-Rex stands in Farragut at a miniature golf course. It’s not a jolly, Barney type dinosaur. Instead he has pained eyes on the edge of tears and a wincing frown as he leans on his bone cane, as though he know’s the asteroid’s going to hit and his time is up. I like him, oddly, even if I don’t recall ever playing miniature golf there.

He seems out of place. While it has two miniature golf courses and plenty of children’s activities, Farragut is not a town of silly tourist traps and roadside nonsense.

Rather, it’s suburbia with no apologies: the precise kind of affluent “respectable” houses no one my age wants because we want to spend what tiny money we have on technology instead. And yet there is resistance in Farragut to apartments or even retirement homes, as I was able to see. Little pretty not-pink houses are the rule in Farragut. In other words, to me it comes off as a dinosaur itself. It’s what our parents and grandparents wanted.

But before the people of Farragut get mad at me, I realize that’s wrong to consider the town a dinosaur. Farragut continues to draw in people. The Chamber of Commerce in Oak Ridge, my current town which I prefer, view it as a threat, pulling away potential residents.

There are two kinds of places a travel writer can write about. There’s the popular destinations: Disney World, New York City, Paris, The Grand Canyon. The stuff everybody knows to go see. You stand there and feel like you’re in a three dimensional postcard, only with real wind blowing around you. Everybody knows this is the place to stand, to sit, to walk, to live!

Then there’s the towns around the blue highways that the great and awesomely named William Least-Heat Moon wrote about. The out of way places, and especially, their unique scrumptious or bizarre food you can claim to have discovered at their diners and restaurants. Plant your flag. You can declare yourself the discoverer. No one else noticed this place before. Doesn’t it feel good?

But seriously, what about places like Farragut? Writers don’t go wild about those ones. Right off the interstate, some decent shopping and restaurants, but nothing anybody goes out of their way to see. And yet it haunts me. Because I had to cover that town often. I got some pretty mixed feelings about it. So I’m writing about this just to get my thoughts out there.

I was stuck covering Farragut for “FarragutPress” because it was my job at that local paper. My editor really wanted me to specialize in things entirely within the town boundaries.

But what are those town boundaries? No one really seemed to know them. Signs didn’t mark them. And the most interesting places in town, like Concord Park or the Pinnacle movie theater were actually outside of town. Many people who lived in Farragut worked elsewhere and people who worked in Farragut lived elsewhere. Knox County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement. Lenoir City Utilities Board provides some of the utilities. Knox County also provided the schools and library system. Even the town hall’s receptionist’s desk has pictures of downtown Knoxville behind it.

The town was inhabited in the 19th Century and has one pre-Civil War building,  Campbell Station Inn. But the town, as a town was founded in 1980, in an attempt to avoid paying property taxes to Knoxville. Most of what’s there is pretty recent. My editor there received a call once blaming a threat to that city’s high school on bused in outsiders, something which seems rich given how everyone there is an outsider.

The town desperately wants more of its own identity, the way that older ones have. I sat in on meetings in which its Planning Commission struggled to make a short strip mall with a Starbucks look like a historic downtown. Starbucks wasn’t interested in playing along. Because it’s Starbucks. The exhibitionist mermaid knows no boss. I left the paper before I could learn how that shopping center turned out.

At the time I stayed as an objective journalist, trying to please my adopted town. But now I laugh at their attempt at an old timey Starbucks and furthermore their attempt to trick the public they were older than 1980. At the same time, I understand that desire. A local identity is important. Seeing Farragut struggle to create one made me realize just how powerful a local identity and history can be. To be fair most attempts at a local identity tend to pretend to be older than they are, be they mock-Greek, mock-Roman, mock-Medieval or mock-Mayberry.

Indeed Farragut’s own identity is in some ways quite unique and fascinating, and not at all the history people from other parts of the country would expect. Its statue of Admiral Farragut is one of the few Civil War statues Knox County has, and he fought for the north. He was born near present-day Farragut, long before it was a town. Tennesseeans here in the East were quite divided during that war.

That Starbucks dispute was hardly the only one that I saw which would make outsiders giggle about as first world problems. During another meeting, the citizens who lived behind the famous Turkey Creek development piled in to complain about garbage trucks running too early in the morning. A public housing resident laughed when I told her that story.

Of course, avoiding more serious problems isn’t exactly a bad thing.  Except for us journalists, no one really looks forward to things going really wrong. Indeed, Farragut has at least one thing to admire: through it’s homeowners associations, citizens have a way of organizing outside of government and bringing any issue, no matter how small, to its attention. They have a strength for community organizing of which Barrack Obama could only dream. Every once in a while though, I wish these people would have been more grateful for what they had.

The town has many hidden strengths. West Bicycles remains among my favorite places for bike repairs. The town has a good number of parks, pedestrian and cycling routes, most hidden a bit off the beaten path, but some like Mayor Bob Leonard Park, below, close to main routes.

However much I might mock certain people in Farragut, I have found most of its people quite friendly, whether at Rotary or Optimist Club. I do at times miss those folks and look forward to seeing them again whenever I can.

Farragut is overall an excellent town for the people who live there. It’s just not for me. I prefer my 1940s-era apartment in Oak Ridge with a park nearby that I don’t need to mow. I don’t need a lawn. I have strange but seemingly significant history all around me: an identity that while controversial is an identity that doesn’t have to be manufactured by making a Starbucks look old.* Besides, I’m close to Frozen Head, the Haw Ridge Trails and the Obed Wild and Scenic River and some excellent local restaurants here that Farragut and its charms don’t really hold much sway on me. I don’t want a place to settle down. I want places to explore. And that’s why Farragut’s not for me.

*It’s the site of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. I’ll probably get more into that later.

 

Unadmired Beautiful Parking Lot Views from Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


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It’s a construction site and an adjacent office parking lot. It’s on aptly-named Commerce Park Drive in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Nobody goes there to look at scenery. I go there to pick up my girlfriend from work.

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Yet somehow, that hill’s view of the Cumberland Plateau over ridges, uninvited wildlife and exposed red clay mini-mesas leave me running around with my camera as though it’s the Grand Canyon.

It’s a spot too big to be a mandala like the one that David George Haskell described in The Forest Unseen, and perhaps it’s most defining feature is the view of the world beyond it. Yet it intrigues me.

I’ll be returning there on this blog many times throughout the year.