Who remembers "The Dukes of Hazzard"?
I do. When I was little, I watched the campy TV series about good ol' boy moonshine runners in the Deep South with my grandpa and enjoyed it. It was fun and action-packed. I even had some of the toys — I probably still have a Boss Hogg action figure around somewhere.
Of course, the true star of the show wasn't Tom Woat or John Schneider or even Catherine Bach, whose character Daisy Duke inspired the name for an iconic article of clothing. No, the biggest name in "Hazzard" was "The General Lee," the orange Dodge Charger driven by the show's protagonist on all sorts of adventures. Emblazoned on its roof was the Confederate Flag, an image which became inexorably tied to "The Dukes of Hazzard" itself.
It's a controversial image to be sure, particularly these days, more than three decades after the show went off the air. With statues of Confederate figures being taken down and an intense cultural focus on issues of race today, the flag's significance to Southern culture has received more scrutiny than ever in recent years. I'll admit, I'm one of those people who doesn't think about the Civil War when I see it. I didn't live in the 1800s, so I don't have that emotional connection to that place and time. For me and others of the time and environment in which I grew up, the flag summons impressions of country music and Southern rock, pick-up trucks — and yes, a certain orange car from pop culture. But for other people, the connotation is very different, and much more sinister, conjuring the horrors of slavery and racial mistreatment.
The symbolic associations of the Confederate flag, the power it possesses, and the legacy left by its time on a silly TV show is explored in a powerful way in Flashback Theater Co.'s newest production, "Hazard County." It's a challenging production for Somerset's own semi-professional theater company in many ways — they originally tried to stage it several years ago, but couldn't find the right cast to make it work. Flashback Theater Co. (FbTC) planned on it again for this past spring, but COVID-19 restrictions got in the way. Now, this weekend, they're ready to do in in the open air, wearing coronavirus protective gear, in a new venue — but the audience may be the ones challenged the most by material that's extremely relevant to issues being discussed today.
Following is a review of this local production of Allison Moore's 2005 play, "Hazard County." As usual, I must note this isn't a true theatre review — I know everyone involved too well to be objective and would never dream of trashing such passionate efforts to build the arts up in Pulaski County. But I can offer observations about what I saw in a sneak preview recently and maybe help people know what to expect, or decide whether or not this is something they'd want to see.
There is a tough line to walk in describing the connection of "The Dukes of Hazzard" to the story presented here, about an aspiring young journalist who goes to a rural Kentucky town to find a compelling story and discovers one in the form of widowed mother Ruth. It would be kind of a spoiler to give it away, but it's worth noting that the story is actually based on true events from the mid-'90s in Guthrie, Ky., where a man was shot while driving a truck decorated with the Confederate flag — shot by someone in a car full of young African-Americans. If you see the show, Google the incident online afterward, or the New Yorker piece, "A Death for Dixie." There you'll get the story as it was presented years ago in the media.
The association of the flag with "The Dukes of Hazzard" does play a role in this tragic tale, but I'll let you see for yourself how that unfolds. Aside from the main story, we are introduced to an assortment of characters delivering monologues about the show itself. Some are fans, some have an academic interest in it, and for others, their feelings about "Dukes" are much less positive. But it's an interesting experiment in thought, to consider the impact the show might have left on different types of audience members, and the greater ramifications of its values and iconography.
While I'd do best not to say too much about the story itself — and it is intense down the stretch; Blake and Ruth grow close but they remain very different people from different backgrounds, and the collision between their two realities is explosive — what I can say is that the cast absolutely acted their butts off doing this thing. Flashback might have struggled to put together the right cast the first time around, but found the right mix this time under directors Sommer Schoch and Bradley Gilmore. Schoch, as Flashback's producing artistic director, has displayed her remarkable talents for staging a show many times over, but it's nice to see Gilmore put his voice in the mix as well. Gilmore, a brilliant and versatile talent in so many different types of art, has acted in a couple of FbTC productions previously, but not directed until now. However, as a Black individual himself, his perspective offers something valuable to the guidance of this show. I'm curious how the two creative minds worked together to make "Hazard County" a reality. The result is a success, at any rate.
The cast is full of FbTc veterans. Alex George grew up on the local stage. We first saw her as an idealistic young girl when she was only a kid performing in "And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth." Flash forward five years, and George is now in college and has grown both more mature as a person and as a performer, to the point where playing a mom struggling to raise two kids after suffering through some horrific life events is not only not beyond her range, but seems so effortless to her. Ruth is tough and tender, vulnerable and — when the right buttons are pushed — venomous. It is a marvel watching George work.
She plays off of Thomas Alvey as Blake, the big city boy who doesn't quite fit in with Ruth's environment. Alvey did a wonderful comedic take as Hamlet in last winter's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and here he gets to flex his acting chops even more. Blake is a mystery who continues to unravel throughout the play; always seemingly earnest but constantly showing he's not what he says he is. That lends an air of suspicion to him that makes us feel uneasy about trusting him, even when the story (or maybe we're just seeing him through Ruth's eyes) suggests we should. Alvey nails his "fish-out-of-water" uneasiness and takes us on an emotional ride as the story progresses. It's great to have him in the Flashback fold.
When I saw the play, Amanda Balltrip was playing Ruth's friend and cousin Camille. The role may also be played by Martha Pratt, as Balltrip is considered a "swing" actor in the production, helping out where needed. Pratt is a terrific actress, but you couldn't want for anything more than what Balltrip gave to the role. Balltrip has deep rural Kentucky roots, including in the town of Hazard, Ky., so it's serendipitous she gets to lend her knowledge of the culture as well as her powerful acting presence to this production, as she's done in previous FbTC shows like "And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth" and "Pirates of Penzance." Camille is cynical and stubbornly protective of her culture, distrustful of types like Blake — but ambitious enough to see what he might offer Ruth.
It's a small cast, but two more actors grace the stage — Keifer Adkins, previously in FbTC shows like "Boats Against the Current" and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," and Lyndsey Pennington, seen in FbTC's "Little Shop of Horrors." The two play both Ruth's children and the line-up of "Dukes of Hazzard" viewers commenting on the show. Adkins is a tremendously skilled actor and his versatility is on full display here. It's difficult for an individual of more than six feet in heigh to convincingly play a small child but Adkins does it well enough to allow you to sink into the illusion. The different types of individuals he portrays in the monologue covers a spectrum of talents in the thespian toolbelt, and he has a mesmerizing knack for engaging with the audience. Pennington is just as convincing as a young girl, playing with her toys and infatuated with the novelty that Blake offers her small-town world. It's a difficult performance, and Pennington throws herself into it with gusto. Pennington, recently out of the University of Kentucky, has a bright future as an actress and FbTC is lucky to feature her on her way up.
Before "Hazard County" gets underway, there's a quick comic piece called "Status Pending," directed by Amber Frangos, that whets the appetite. It's about friends in the age of social media and features two individuals who have never acted in person live on the Flashback stage previously — Renate Dopp, who has filled many other roles with the program, and Leslie Cummins. Both women have terrific instincts for comedy, delivery and facial expressions, and the result is a nice round of laughs before the serious stuff starts.
It's a difficult time to try to make theatre happen, but Flashback is doing it. The team behind "Hazard County" has worked hard create a plan for performances to follow social distancing guidelines. They've turned the new downtown Farmer's Market building, located right across from Flashback's normal black box theater, into an open-air performing venue to help with that cause. Seating will be outdoors, and audience members should wear a mask to this performance. Actors will be wearing clear face-shields, so you can see all their expressions. It's a bit odd at first, but the audience adapts to it after a bit, and obviously it's not a creative choice — we all know why it's being done, and it's out of the production's hands. The fact that Flashback is finding a way to overcome the obstacles in front of it to bring Somerset something compelling and entertaining in a frustrating time is something of a miracle, and they deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their hard work and vision in making it happen.
The show runs Friday, July 17 and Saturday, July 18 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, July 19 at 2:30 p.m.
The show is not ticketed but is a "pay-what-you-can" performance. Season subscribes will have access to a reserved seating area. Suggested donations for those attending is between $10 and $20. The money can only help to make the non-profit Flashback a possibility in this difficult environment for the arts and helps reward the parties involved for their professional standards and efforts.
Visit the "Hazard County by Allison Moore" event page on Facebook or Flashbacktheater.co for more information.