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New Performance Work Honors Environmental Activists In Appalachia

Courtesy of the artist
Felicia Cooper rehearses "The Ironweed Tales."

When people think of Appalachia, they might be more likely to think of West Virginia or Kentucky than of Hawley, a tiny town in northeastern Pennsylvania.

THE IRONWEED TALES runs at 7 p.m. nightly Wed., May 30, through Sun., June 3, with matinees on June 2 and 3. Aftershock Theatre is at 115 57th St., in Lawrenceville. Tickets are $20-25. More information is available on their Facebook page.

But Appalachia is an extensive region known as much for its natural beauty as for the poverty of many of its people, and its legacy of extractive industries.

Felicia Cooper was upset when natural-gas companies starting tearing up the land in her hometown to build new pipelines.

That concern fed her interest in Appalachian women who became activists in their native West Virginia to opposed mountaintop-removal coal mining. This particularly destructive form of strip mining uses explosives to turn the peaks of mountains to rubble in order to expose the coal inside.

Cooper is a theater artist, and her response is The Ironweed Tales. The 45-minute performance work, which premieres this week, uses puppetry, dance and more to tell the stories of high-profile activists Maria Gunnoe, Lorelei Scarbro and the late Judy Bonds.

“It's about what brought them to stand their ground and take root in the earth and fight for what they believe is just,” said Cooper, who studied theater at Point Park University.

When you think “puppets” here, don’t think sock puppets: Cooper uses a wooden marionette and posable tabletop puppet.

Ironweed Tales also incorporates the low-tech art form known as crankies: long rolls of paper unfurled by hand-cranking and backlit to reveal hand-drawn artwork.

Ironweed Tales continues the MiniMythologies series of the folkLAB experimental-theater initiative.

The production features live original music by singer and guitarist Juliana Carr.

The work’s title resonates with symbolic power. It references a native mountain plant.

“It looks like thistle but it's much softer and brighter,” said Cooper. “And it's this lovely purple flower that grows all over the side of the mountains at the end of the summer and you can't pull out of the earth no matter how hard you try. Like it just, its roots are so deep that you can't tear it up from the earth that it lives on and Appalachian women have compared themselves to this to say, like ‘We are just the same. You cannot pull it up out of the mountain, and we are as much part of the mountain as any plant.’”