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Arizona Repertory Theatre Stages Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle"

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  IT'S NOT EVERY professor of theatre who can claim Harold Dixon's heritage. Dixon grew up in the coal-mining regions of southern Illinois in a family whose lifeblood was the mines.

"My grandfather was a coal miner and union organizer in the times of John L. Lewis (of the United Mine Workers)," says Dixon, a UA professor of acting and directing. "My dad was a union organizer."

Dixon, who directs UA Arizona Repertory Theatre's new production of the epic play The Kentucky Cycle, told his student actors that when his father, now nearly 80, retired and moved to California, "He found a box of unexploded dynamite under the front porch," presumably a forgotten missive from management thugs. "When you're talking union organizing, you're not just talking wages and benefits. You're talking life and death."

That rough-and-tumble background has served Dixon in good stead in pulling together Robert Schenkkan's sprawling saga of 200 years of Kentucky history. Southern Illinois, which adjoins Kentucky, is not all that different from the impoverished hills of Cumberland County where Schenkkan set his work. Both landscapes have been ravaged by the mines, and the play, a "revisionist history" of the American taming of the wilderness, has a "strong environmental thread running through it."

"Kentucky becomes a much larger metaphor for all of American history," Dixon says of the play, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama. "The playwright says that we have to work to come to grips with our notion of the frontier and the mythology of American expansion. Daniel Boone was from Kentucky. The place is a metaphor for our westward expansion."

Loosely modeled on the ancient Greek tragedies, The Kentucky Cycle follows the changing fortunes of three families--two warring white clans, the Rowens and Talberts, and one black, the Biggses--over two centuries pockmarked by greed and violence. The work begins in 1775, when Cherokee hunters roamed the hills of the Cumberland Gap, and ends in 1975, after the unions have lost much of their power. In between are excerpts from almost every major chapter in American history.

A Cherokee woman is abducted and raped, and becomes the common ancestor of all three clans. (Some of the dialogue is in Cherokee, and the student actors were advised by Earnie Frost, a Cherokee priest who lives in Tucson, Dixon says.) White pioneers usurp the land and trade in African slaves. The white families divide bitterly over the Civil War: Kentucky itself, a mirror of the nation, was torn asunder by opposing views on slavery. Eventually, the land-rich, cash-poor farmers are tricked into selling "mineral rights" to their land on the cheap, and later learn the contracts they signed hand over the land itself to the mining companies. Much of Part II (the play is performed in two parts in rotating repertory) chronicles the heroic labor battles of the 20th century, as impoverished miners struggled for the right to form unions. Even Mother Jones makes an appearance.

"It's a revisionist history," says Dixon. "The playwright is saying, 'Here's the story the way we don't like to tell it. We better look at how we got where we are today...There's an interconnection with ourselves, the environment and our history...If we don't face the truth, we'll never make the connections.'"

Schenkkan, born in 1953 in North Carolina, traveled in Kentucky when he was performing as an actor in the acclaimed Actors' Theatre of Louisville. Roaming through the hardscrabble hills of Appalachia, he found what he describes in a program note as "ruin on a grand scale." An early pioneer had rhapsodized that "heaven is a Kentucky kind of place." Partially wrecked by greed in the intervening centuries, Schenkkan found that "hell is also a Kentucky kind of place."

Reaction to the play in Kentucky has been mixed. Actors Theatre, for instance, has yet to stage it, though the University of Kentucky mounted a production several years ago. Dixon says he can understand the hurt feelings of some Kentuckians. "My dad's sensitive to the term hillbilly," he points out. "And the characters in the play are uneducated, their speech is rough. But this play is not meant to put down Kentucky." Rather, he says, it's a play about America that happens to be told through the particularities of the Bluegrass State.

Student designer Peter Beudert has given this big work a spare, stripped-down set, though the 18 student actors and two children are costumed in historically authentic clothing. And its great swathe of history is tamed into nine separate playlets.

"The scope is big, but it's told via a series of smaller scenes and through personal dramas," Dixon says. Running six hours total, the play's two parts will run intermittently throughout November and into December.

"It's set up so there's a week in between," Dixon says. "It's gripping and unusual. You'll be eager to come back and see how it ends."

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