RFK in EKY The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project: Recreating Robert Kennedy's two-day, 200 mile
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What Happened, How it Went, and Where it’s Going

“I think that, you know, by doing this, it has showed that eastern Kentucky has moved up some, but it needs to continue to grow. We need more stuff here. Just like they wanted in ’68. We still want it. We don’t have a factory in Wolfe County today. So, if the children here, when they grow up, get a job, they have to leave to get a job. I don’t want my child leavin’. I don’t want my grandchildren leavin’. I want them here. So, you know, it’s basically, like it was in ’68. There’s still no industry here. And farmlands are getting’ slower.”
Phyllis Buckner, who played her mother, Betty Terrill, in the recreated Vortex hearing.

“I’ve realized just how important theater can be and performances can be when it comes to really engaging people in reality. Because I think a lot of the things that happened the day during the reenactment – even I felt moved more toward the real issues of what’s happening in my life by being a part of that reenactment – so I hope and I feel like many, many other people did the same thing, experienced the same thing.”
Nell Fields, Project Coordinator and local activist.

“Despite all the riches under ground, the most important riches of the area are above ground: they are the people of eastern Kentucky. It is your understanding coupled with your creative thinking that can find the creative solutions to the problems that exist. You can find the opportunity in the problem, open it up, articulate it and bring new things into existence. And by doing so create a new brighter future for all the people of eastern Kentucky.”
Robert Kennedy at Alice Lloyd College, Pippa Passes, Kentucky, February 13, 1968

What Happened: The Project

Conceived, created, and directed by John Malpede using an amateur, largely local cast representing the broadest demographics of eastern Kentucky, RFK in EKY has been in development since 2000, when Malpede first came to Letcher County, Kentucky (home of Appalshop) for the American Festival Project’s Artist and Community Gathering. Structurally, RFK in EKY continues the exploration of transcript text and participatory formats Malpede used in the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s Agents and Assets, which recreates a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the importation of drugs into the country by Nicaraguan Contras with CIA complicity using casts made up of those directly affected by national drug policy. Beyond performance, Agents and Assets acts as a lead-in to focused conversation, a public analysis, among audience, performers, and subject experts on different aspects of U.S. drug policies – the war on drugs, treatment and incarceration, foreign aid, electoral agendas, etc.

The creative process of Agents and Assets merges individual’s experiential knowledge with broader contextual information, allowing both performers and audience a deeper understanding of the social and political forces that shape their lives. This model, mixing lived experience and context, provided the basic groundwork for RFK in EKY. Local citizens, some of whom saw Kennedy as schoolchildren in 1968, play national figures; children play their parents; today’s political and community leaders play their past counterparts. An important underpinning of this work is to have those impacted by policy play the policy makers, allowing for a deep analysis of the forces affecting their communities.

Throughout the RFK in EKY project, performance and the public exploration of the issues raised by Kennedy’s 1968 visit and still current held equal footing – recreating Kennedy’s visit provided the platform, created the points of access, that made the community conversations possible. It was essential therefore that the recreation be truthful and maintain the integrity of the original tour’s purpose – a search for place-based knowledge – in order to catalyze open and honest community participation.

Malpede reconstructed Kennedy’s February 1968 visit through a process mixing exhaustive text-based research (transcripts, newspaper and television news archives, and documents from within Kennedy’s entourage) with anecdotal history provided by members of Kennedy’s staff, tour participants and attendees. Traveling Kennedy’s original route repeatedly and informally over a three-year period, Malpede sought out people with connections to the 1968 visit, interviewing dozens, locating community memory holders with multiple perspectives on the event, and, with them, fleshed out the many moments missing from the official record.

The greatest benefit of this seemingly informal research was the attention to community – through the process, hundreds of people had direct input into the creation and formulation of the project. These activities allowed local people to be at the center (in direct contrast to the way most outsider investigations have been structured and perceived): it was after all, their information, their history and memories that much of the project was built on. It nurtured the notion of community and individual expertise, and generated investment in the project on a number of levels.

Malpede’s mix of record and memory created a script, a format to the performed re-enactment on September 9th and 10th 2004. The visible process of people remembering and recreating, along with project’s contextualizing events (in many formats – lectures, photo exhibitions, sound and visual installations, individual stories), allowed performers and audience alike the opportunity to not merely act or witness, but to analyze, deconstruct, and draw meaning from both the original and reconstructed tours. The audience was given a participatory role in the project – at three locations along the tour, local hairdressers and theater interns helped audience members get into period clothing and style their hair – creating an entry point and a tangible connection to the production. Moreover the audience costuming solidified a kind of temporal community, a citizenship in the recreation that transcended individual differences – opening up a broader public space and encouraging deeper interactions. This was reinforced by the project’s structure, in which audience and performers mingled freely, and where travel time from site to site became a critical processing arena, as people were encouraged to seek out different travel companions each time to share information and perspective.

The reenactment, and its surrounding events, took place at twelve locations over four days, September 8th through 11th, moving from Lexington in the center of the state to Floyd County at the far eastern edge, a distance of over two hundred miles.

Peter Edelman, former Kennedy aide and Undersecretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, and currently professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, opened RFK in EKY on September 8th with a talk at the University of Kentucky. Giving both historical and current context, Edelman spoke on the “war on poverty” programs of the sixties, RFK’s important contribution to their conceptualization, their subsequent dismantling, and the unaddressed levels of poverty in our present state of “welfare reform.”

The next day, after a pancake breakfast and styling party at the Wolfe County Senior Citizens Center, over thirty carloads of participants and audience drove ten miles to the Vortex Community Church. The church was next door to the one-room Vortex School, long since demolished, where Kennedy held the first of two field hearings for the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty. The local cast, including the daughter of a woman who had testified in 1968, performed the transcript of the original hearing. The voices from 1968 raised issues of race, economic disenfranchisement, and told almost heroic stories of survival. Wolfe County remains one of the poorest counties in the nation, and the testimony from 1968 resonates powerfully with its citizens today.

After Vortex, the caravan of cars drove most of an hour (in each car a conversation) to the small hollow at Barwick, parking at the Community Center, where audience and actors alike walked the last muddy quarter mile to the Barwick School. The interior of the one-room school house, was decorated to look as it did at Valentine’s Day, when Kennedy visited, with heart shaped paper cut outs and crayon drawings created by today's pre school students at the Head Start center in nearby Chavies. 4 international graduate student interns (from the Frank Moore Instituut in Groningen, The Netherlands), worked with Barwick residents to sow curtains, install a pot bellied stove, and frame pictures of the school's 1968 students and place one on each former student's own desk. Video footage from 1968 showing RFK meeting with the students was projected on the front wall of the school room, and John Malpede read a letter sent him by William Greider (now of The Nation, who covered the tour in ’68 for the Louisville Courier-Journal) describing Kennedy’s quiet interaction with each child. Peter Edelman moderated a discussion among Bonnie Jean Carroll (the school’s teacher in ’68), Zona Akemon (community activist and owner of the property where the school is sited), her son, John, and John Malpede on the changes in the community, and in the nature of rural poverty and hunger over the past thirty five years. Several of the students from 1968, still living in the community, added to the conversation, which focused on powerful first person accounts of childhood poverty, hunger, and education at the time of Kennedy’s visit and now.

Everyone ate a box lunch on the school grounds – in ’68, Zona Akemon served Kennedy’s entourage lunch on tables outside her trailer – a time to continue processing information and further discuss the issues raised with everyone involved – residents, performers, audience, experts, their perspectives all in the mix.

The recreated entourage then proceeded thirty or so miles to Hazard’s Liberty Street neighborhood. In 1968, Liberty Street was the town’s primary African American community, and then Mayor Willie Dawahare brought Kennedy there to discuss speeding up the process for developing low-income housing. As hundreds of people walked up the narrow street, RFK in EKY reenacted that exchange, and an interview of Kennedy by a young journalist, now Mayor, Bill Gorman. While on the street, Kennedy visited the Ollinger home, now the neighborhood community center – RFK in EKY brought its participants to the center to join in a conversation with Lucille Ollinger recalling Kennedy’s visit and to view a photo exhibition documenting RFK’s walk on the street.

From there the tour proceeded to the Hazard City Hall, where Mayor Bill Gorman discussed the economic and social changes since the sixties, and gave a moving populist testimonial to Kennedy’s values and the importance of public service.

From there, the caravan drove out to the reenactment’s greatest spectacle - a working strip mine site off Highway 15. Thirty-five cars wound their way up the dirt access road and parked within yards of giant earth movers and twenty-five foot tall dump trucks. While hundreds of tons of coal and dirt were moving by, participants listened to the mine’s operator describe the business. His message, that a locally owned coal industry is essential to eastern Kentucky’s economic survival, spoken against the backdrop of mountain rock walls crumbled by explosives, raised the obvious question in the minds of the silent audience – as it did when Kennedy viewed a nearby mine site in 1968 – at what cost to the environment and other quality of life factors?

The first day ended, as did Kennedy’s, at Alice Lloyd College, a school founded and dedicated to community service. Hundreds of people, standing room only, packed the school’s auditorium to listen to Hazard attorney Jack Faust as RFK deliver a speech, recreated by Malpede from contemporary RFK speeches, addressing public service, education, and job-based poverty programming. As in 1968, students in the audience asked Kennedy about his views on the Vietnam War. The response, taken from an RFK speech in Chicago the first week in February 1968, literally stunned the audience with its parallels to the current situation, the war in Iraq.

A roundtable discussion with Peter Edelman, author Gurney Norman, and Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis followed. While fielding questions from the audience, these three shared insight into the process of public perception and policy change, each riffing off their relationship or contact with RFK and the nature of leadership that encourages citizen involvement in the political process.

On day two, after a pancake breakfast and styling party at Appalshop in Whitesburg, the tour reenacted Kennedy’s entry into Whitesburg and his speech on the Letcher County Courthouse steps. The caravan then moved ten miles north to the Fleming-Neon High School gym, where the second hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty took place. The testimony of twenty witnesses was taken during the three-hour reenactment, where hundreds of high school, middle school, and elementary students, joined the tour’s core audience. The audience seemed particularly moved by the reenacted testimonies of author Harry Caudill speaking of the Appalachian region’s sacrifices in the building of America’s industry and infrastructure while developing neither at home; of high school student Tommy Duff, expelled from his school for documenting substandard conditions; and of John Tiller, a Community Action Program leader who condemned both the obstructionism of local political leaders and the national policies that shifted resources from poverty reduction programs to the war in Viet Nam.

Afterwards, RFK proceeded to the Fleming Head Start where, as in 1968, he read a story to the preschoolers.

The reenactment ended in Prestonsburg at the Floyd County Fiscal Court, where Ronnie Dee Blair, a student reporter in 1968, shared an audiotape and photos he made of Kennedy’s speech there during the original tour. Following, scholars Loyal Jones and Tom Kiffmeyer discussed RFK’s Appalachian legacy, the “war on poverty,” and the ongoing tradition of activism in the mountains.

Every aspect of the reenactment/performance was painstakingly documented by four film crews (working in a variety of formats, including 16mm) under the direction of Robert Salyer, an Appalshop filmmaker. Each individual performance site had at least two cameras running at all times, and film crews also shot interviews with audience members, participants, and cast during the production. Performance documentation also includes the RFK in EKY Times broadsheet (an expanded program in the form of a newspaper suggested by Harrell Fletcher), hundreds of photographs by local journalists, audience members, staff, and the artist David Michalek.

The overall documentation of RFK in EKY is designed to capture several elements key to the production: creating an archive of memorabilia and artifacts from Kennedy’s original visit, and an accurate depiction of the production’s development process, the performance itself, and the reflections of those involved and in the audience.

Using the skills of interns from Antioch College and the Frank Mohr Instituut, the project created a digital archive, where collected stories, photos, letters, and period accounts of Kennedy’s visit, gathered from community sources could be stored and accessed over the internet and through Appalshop’s computer network. The artist Harrell Fletcher led community workshops where artifacts that no longer existed, but were described in various narratives, were recreated in a variety of formats – a chicken mesh Polaroid camera, cardboard shoes, and clay replicas of Kennedy’s boutonnière and an apple core he threw out of his car. These apocryphal items were also photographed and included in the archive.

The project’s development and rehearsal process was documented in a number of ways. Video of interviews, rehearsals, site visits, and community gatherings; photos of rehearsals; minutes from months of weekly production and staff meetings; transcriptions, script material, contemporary media and news accounts; and press releases are all included in the project archive.

Read Next: How it Went