RFK in EKY The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project: Recreating Robert Kennedy's two-day, 200 mile
The RFK in EKY Library
Documentation Memorabilia & Commemoration Assessment Studies Project Archive Links
How it Went

Through RFK in EKY, John Malpede and the production staff recreated not only the primary activities of Kennedy’s 1968 tour of the region (hearings, speeches, interviews, and informal conversations), but gave a podium to a number of the original participants wherein the emotional, political, and community contexts of his visit could be examined. Actors, audience, and the original speakers were able to spend non-structured time together, discussing issues and sharing ideas for revitalizing the spirit of “war on poverty” programs and the place-based activism highlighted by Kennedy’s tour.

The two day “spectacle about a spectacle” followed RFK’s grueling schedule, covering hundreds of miles and, through site-specific conversations, held a contemporary mirror to the issues Kennedy focused on that are still current in the coal region today: the representation of marginalized populations in the national consciousness; the role of government in maintaining a quality-of-life safety net, and fostering sustainable economic development, educational and vocational advancement; ways to stem the out-migration of rural young people and the loss of natural resources; and the priorities of a government administration engaged in a protracted war. RFK in EKY, like Kennedy and those who created his tour, focused attention on the indigenous expertise, alternative visions, and potential of Appalachia.

In gathering together an all local cast, Malpede returned to the aesthetic of Agents and Assets – the lived experience of the performer and its relationship to the material is the key element in creating a truthful, powerful, performance. Cast members were attracted to the project for a variety of reasons - a combination of personal nostalgia and connectedness to Kennedy’s visit; the recognition that RFK’s visit was an inciting incident in their own development as socially conscious citizens; and a desire to return Appalachian voices to a broader, national conversation. The rehearsal process went far beyond line practice, character development, and staging – cast and staff often engaged in extended dialogue about the facts presented in the script, what changed and what hadn’t since 1968, and current events in the region and world.

One of the project purposes was to use recreated history to help people recognize the citizen heroes of 1968, and to see in themselves and their neighbors the same kind of citizen heroics – leading the way in developing positive community changes, providing services and a social safety net for their neighbors, and speaking out – creating public discussions on the state of affairs affecting them. The cast found these connections through their characters; the audience through the characters’ portrayal – local voices speaking out to power. This recognition led to intense and provocative conversations at performance sites and during the travel between sites – actors, community audiences, and the national and international audience that came for the performance, all together.

These conversations, and the overall production, were greatly enhanced by the incorporation of media, exhibitions, and installations. Beginning with the memorabilia gatherings, art in the form of artifacts, photographs, recordings and exhibition, the sharing of these pieces with wider audiences, played a major role in the project’s organization and production.

Personal treasures were given a public life through the project’s archive and in the recreation itself, and memories, historical examinations, were given a variety of forms – archival footage of Kennedy’s stop at the Barwick School was shown in the meticulously reconstructed schoolhouse where each student’s picture was displayed on their desk; a photo exhibition of RFK’s walk down Liberty Street formed the backdrop for Lucille Ollinger’s story of his visit to her home, now the community center where the story was told and the photos displayed; a soundscape made of speech fragments by RFK emanated from the now-collapsing auditorium where he spoke on the Alice Lloyd campus…

The project has been interactive from its inception – responding to, growing because of, and continuing to demand more in terms of community involvement. The project is place and population specific: the history it recreates, the issues it raises, the landscape it travels, and the people whose voices it amplifies, are all very much of eastern Kentucky. Robert F. Kennedy and his original tour were the inciting incident of the project, but it is the sense-memories and the die-hard community activism of the coal-fields, at that time and this, along with John Malpede’s careful listening, structuring, and direction, that has given it a powerful life.

Within the actual production, RFK in EKY staged five community forums, not to pitch particular agendas, but to give context to the issues explored by the project, and to share overviews of both historic and current attempts to address these inequities. This context/overview approach to the issues was designed to encourage “maximum feasible participation” by the public, and to foster the broadest possible dialogue. And, while many of the speakers listed above possess a “liberal” viewpoint on a national approach to poverty and social safety net (as did nearly all of those who testified before Kennedy in 1968, particularly by today’s standards), the project found it valuable to provide a forum to a number of more conservative voices from the community, including Mayor Bill Gorman of Hazard and the operators of the B&W Resources strip mine.

Robert Kennedy found himself informed by a variety of approaches to the problems of poverty and economic development while in Kentucky. RFK in EKY determined that it could provide the best form of community service by designing an overall program that would not shy away from the often conflicting and confrontational approaches to these problems today. The production’s entire format created a public forum for the careful listening to, consideration of, and discussion about the many approaches to today’s issues by everyone involved.

The recognition that providing a design for careful listening and consideration was as important, if not more so, than simply providing a soapbox for speakers was drawn directly from the community. There are few families in eastern Kentucky that don’t contain both a worker in an extractive industry and an ardent environmentalist; and there are few public hearings that don’t pit the two directly against each other. The project was intent on going past historic divides, which have too often been manipulated to hinder any real progress toward even shared goals in the region. The production as a whole was meant to highlight the shared goals and best intentions of all parties in the discussion, and to help people learn more about what is, and what is possible.

The production’s cast would be an example of the need for this thoughtful balance: within it were individuals working full time against the coal industry as well as one who joined the cast to ensure a dignified portrayal of one of the characters, a family friend who represented the coal industry in 1968. Members of the cast were poor themselves, or rich by community standards; some in support of the current war in Iraq, others vehemently against it; many worked for the established powers of the region, others fought daily against the status quo. Within the rehearsal process, people practiced not just the production, but the notion of public dialogue. Differences of opinion were expressed and welcomed, and there were times that people listened well enough to each other that their minds were changed.

Since the use of Kennedy’s visit provided an entry for people of many different backgrounds and positions, the point was to keep everyone present and receptive throughout, to build a community able to explore difficult and contested ideas together.

The project recreated a moment when, without denying the endemic poverty with which it had become identified, the region and it’s grassroots leaders and activists were re-contextualized, credentialed as experts by Kennedy and his staff, and given media attention through his tour that placed their voices firmly in the national dialogue. The people spotlighted by Kennedy and his carefully crafted tour of inquiry were developing local and practical solutions to their communities’ problems. The recreated tour brought together and spotlighted today’s leaders, their work and programs, and bodies of thought, giving them public forums as both performers and themselves. It also helped people recognize the significance of their surroundings – building local respect for the meaning of places like the Barwick School and Liberty Street and for the importance of local history.

A vast regional network (managed by Project Coordinator Nell Fields) supported the project in both concrete and intangible ways – cooking pancakes, providing access to performance sites, donating costumes and cars, and giving freely of their time and expertise. The project brought together a disparate group of people (lawyers, schoolchildren, government officials both Republican and Democrat, teachers, social workers, non-traditional college students, pastors, local and international journalists, activist academics, theater and visual artists, senior citizens, Appalachian African Americans, coal operators, environmental activists, law enforcement officers, firemen), all of whom put aside their historic, cultural, social, and economic differences to participate equally and openly in the project.

Whether as actors, speakers, or audience, the project then took this group on a classic learning experience, a trip, where they left their traditional areas of comfort, their habitual geographies, and experienced places, stories, and people previously unknown to them – not just as individuals, but as members of a group, a traveling community. This traveling community not only experienced RFK in EKY, they processed it together, benefiting from the multiple perspectives and experiences each brought to it.

Eastern Kentucky has a history of social, environmental, and economic activism that has been celebrated, then subverted, by the dominant national culture to the point where even the word Appalachia, in the late sixties a shorthand for the failings of national policy regarding rural poverty and the excesses of extractive industry, now evokes responses primarily about music, cultural stereotypes, and historical images.

Like Kennedy, RFK in EKY and its project partners consciously recruited media coverage for the purpose of reintegrating Appalachian concerns and voices into the national and global dialogue, to revisit policy on poverty, and to provide a truthful representation of the Appalachian region and the accomplishments of its people to the wider world. No citizenship training can afford to ignore the power of the media or fail to teach ways to use it. A Google search for RFK in EKY during the performance yielded over ten pages of websites containing information and stories on the project, and it was covered in the New York Times, Le Figaro, Liberation, The Nation, American Theater, and, through an AP story, the Washington Times, San Francisco Chronicle and dozens of other U.S. papers.

The project provided an opportunity for local people to learn about their neighbors and for people from elsewhere to learn about the realities of present day Appalachia (through attendance, the internet, or regional, national, and international press coverage). People involved with or attending the recreation found out about who was doing what to improve the quality of life in the area – what Head Start does with parents for example, or what economic initiatives and supports are available in the region, or about the East Letcher County Ministries Clothes Bank (who provided most of the costumes), or the Wolfe County Senior Citizen Center.

Like Kennedy and his 1968 tour, RFK in EKY provided an environment conducive to the practice of citizenship – a public space, a forum for a multiple perspective exploration and assessment of community resources and needs, a place to speak and be listened to, the recognition that citizen heroes still exist.

Read Next: Where it's Going