The summer of 2011 in Eastern Kentucky was a contentious one, especially in Perry County where two gay men were expelled from the Hazard Pavilion, sparking a protest, apologies from city government, and national headlines.
The controversy wasn’t exclusive to Hazard, however. That same summer a lesbian couple in Harlan County claimed a group of people shot fireworks at them, and another man in Harlan County claimed he was badly beaten because of his sexual orientation.
So, when folks at Berea College asked noted author Silas House, who also serves as the school’s National Endowment of the Humanities Chair of Appalachian Literature, to write a play that would be as timely as possible he quickly discovered what the subject should be. He said incidents like those in Harlan and at the Pavilion were popping up in headlines across the nation.
“I really looked at the news a lot, and the thing that kept coming up was this issue, and so that’s why I decided to write it,” said House, who labeled that summer as the summer of hate. “It was also a thing my students were talking to me about and seemed to be genuinely concerned about and confused about.”
The result was a play titled “This is My Heart for You,” a story set in the fictional Appalachian town of Troublesome. Tensions heighten after a lifeguard expels a gay couple from a swimming pool, effectively outing the couple to the community. A mother struggles to cope with her son’s sexuality, and a dialogue begins among people with two very different points of view.
The play’s world premier was held in Berea in February 2012, but come October, a group in Perry County will bring “This is My Heart for You” to stage for a one-time production at the public library in Hazard. House agreed to allow the group to stage his play as long as any proceeds from the production will go to the Fairness Coalition.
Jenny Williams is the faculty advisor for Hazard Community and Technical College’s Gay and Straight Alliance, formerly known as the school’s diversity club, and she is also helping produce “This is My Heart for You” in Hazard. She noted while the play was inspired by actual events, it is not about Hazard or any other actual location. Still, she hopes it will serve to help continue the conversation about equality and fairness that of late has gained attention in the region.
“We want to make it clear that we feel like the city of Hazard responded beautifully to the incident at the Pavilion,” Williams said. “We felt like Mayor Gorman’s response was everything we could have wished for, and that we feel like Hazard is a really supportive and accepting place to live and work. But we know there are people out there who still have a lot of prejudice against people who have different lifestyles, and so for us to put this play on here, we just want it to inspire some conversation, we want it to get people talking, we want to get people thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
House said he was careful while writing the play to portray both sides of the issue, to show a definite difference of opinion, but not to vilify anyone. The anti-gay protesters in the piece, he noted, should not be considered villains, but as complex human begins who serve to illustrate that the issue of fairness is a complicated one.
“It’s not a critique of Eastern Kentucky or Appalachia so much as it’s just, I think, a realistic portrait of what’s happening here,” he said. “I try to show the good and the bad, and I think this play is really a complex look at this place and its people. I hope it is. That’s the way I intend it.”
A native of Eastern Kentucky, House said he is happy his play will be staged in the region, and while the story is quite fictional, the issues he tackles are none the less very real. Issues with equality remain in this region and throughout the nation, he added, and it isn’t until people begin talking about problems in the community that people begin to tackle them.
“I’m very proud of being from Eastern Kentucky,” he said. “I’m really proud of being an Appalachian, and sometimes people in the region get mad at me because I talk about the problems we have in the region, but I don’t know how we work toward bettering our region without talking about the problems.”
Auditions for “The is My Heart for You” will be held at Hazard Community and Technical College Sept. 4-5, from 6 to 8 p.m. each evening. Rehearsals will begin once the play is cast, and the play will open for a one-time showing at the Perry County Public Library on Oct. 11.
“For us to be able to put it on here, and I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s a really good play, regardless of what the subject matter is,” Williams added. “So, we’re really excited to put it on for that reason. Silas House is an amazing author, and we feel really blessed that we live some place that is open and accepted enough that we can put on a play like this.”