[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: It'
s 1968 in Kentucky: Two Days of Political Theater in the
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It's 1968 in Kentucky: Two Days of Political Theater in the Original Settings
September 1, 2004
By JAMES DAO
WHITESBURG, Ky. - When John Malpede, a performance artist
from Los Angeles, asked a small-town Kentucky lawyer named
Jack Faust to play the lead role in his latest project,
"RFK in EKY," Mr. Faust was flattered but perplexed.
There was, first off, the matter of his appearance. Mr.
Faust, an amiable 55-year-old with silvery hair and a
paunch, looks nothing like the man he was to play: the
fiery, athletically trim, 43-year-old Robert F. Kennedy of
"I told him I thought I could play Teddy Kennedy," Mr.
More significantly, Mr. Faust was struggling to understand
"RFK in EKY," Mr. Malpede's attempt to recreate Kennedy's
two-day War on Poverty tour of eastern Kentucky in February
1968, just a month before he declared his candidacy for
president and four months before he was assassinated.
If it was drama, it seemed nothing like the roles that Mr.
Faust had performed in community theater in nearby Hazard.
But Mr. Malpede liked Mr. Faust's style and encouraged him
to read transcripts of Mr. Kennedy's speeches and hearings
from 36 years ago. As he did, Mr. Faust experienced a
breakthrough: the issues that people worried about in 1968
- war, poverty and the environment - still weigh heavily on
peoples' minds today.
"There were so many parallels between what was going on in
Vietnam and Iraq today, it was almost eerie," Mr. Faust
Mr. Malpede could not have summed up the purpose of his
project any better. From its beginnings three years ago,
Mr. Malpede, whose work often focuses on the poor, wanted
to encourage local people to think about their
socioeconomic conditions, and ways they could improve them.
Recreating Mr. Kennedy's trip, which many people remember
fondly, seemed an ideal way to stimulate that kind of
discussion, Mr. Malpede said.
"Kennedy's visit provided a platform for local people to
talk about issues like poverty and economic development,"
Mr. Malpede, 59, said. "Our program has provided a trigger
for people to express what that moment means to them. It
has engendered conversations without our having to pull
He offers this example: A woman was rehearsing a scene in
which she plays a nurse concerned about hunger when she
suddenly exclaimed, "But this still goes on today!"
Though the presidential campaign might make his project
seem more topical, Mr. Malpede said he did not plan it that
way. He conceived the re-enactment before the invasion of
Iraq. But the parallels that the actors are drawing between
Kennedy's Vietnam context and today's fighting have added a
rich new vein of historical relevance to the performance,
"Reality has been accommodating to us," Mr. Malpede said.
He is producing the project with his wife, Henriette
Brouwers, in conjunction with Appalshop, an arts and media
organization here in Whitesburg, a town of 1,600 in the
heart of the eastern Kentucky coal country. It will be
staged from Sept. 8 to 11 at locations from Vortex to
Prestonsburg. A schedule events is available on the group's
Web site, www.appalshop.org.
Mr. Kennedy, then a Democratic senator from New York and
chairman of a subcommittee with jurisdiction over
employment and poverty programs, had come to eastern
Kentucky to study how President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on
Poverty was faring.
But in his two field hearings, in Vortex and Neon,
witnesses veered off into an array of regional problems,
from environmental degradation to unsafe working conditions
to inadequate schools. Between hearings, Kennedy stopped at
a one-room schoolhouse, spoke to college students, visited
a strip mine and chatted with clumps of people on street
All the way, he was trailed by a caravan of news reporters
who saw the trip as a prelude to a presidential campaign.
They captured Kennedy's encounters with regular Kentuckians
and, almost inadvertently, gave national voice to
Mr. Malpede has tried to exploit the cache of historical
material from Kennedy's tour - photographs, news articles,
oral histories, letters and hearing transcripts - in a
variety of ways. First, he is restaging several of the
stops, including two hearings, a speech at Alice Lloyd
College and visits to a schoolhouse and a strip mine.
There were will also be a film presentation, an exhibition
of Kennedy memorabilia and talks on Kennedy and the War on
Poverty by Loyal Jones, the former director of the
Appalachian Center at Berea College, and Peter Edelman, a
former Kennedy aide who is now a law professor at
Portions of the four-day event will also be broadcast on
Appalshop's FM radio station, which is available on the
Internet at www.appalshop.org, will be featuring period
music to help set the atmosphere. Mr. Malpede also plans to
archive much of the memorabilia on his Web site.
This is not, Mr. Malpede is the first to acknowledge, a
big-budget re-enactment with details honed to every narrow
tie and beehive bouffant. (It will cost about $300,000,
raised by Mr. Malpede and Michael Hunt, formerly of
Appalshop, from foundations.) The actors are amateurs, and
some have never performed before. The costumes come from
churches, rummage sales and attics. A few 1968-vintage cars
may be provided by participants in a classic car show.
Daily pancake breakfasts will serve as makeup and coiffure
One intriguing question is just who will be in the
audience. Mr. Malpede says he expects several dozen people,
including some former Kennedy aides, to fly into Kentucky
to see the production. There will also be crowds of
students at the college and high school where scenes will
But will people come off the street to hear Kennedy's
speech at the Floyd County courthouse in Prestonsburg? And
will anyone actually drive to the ridgetop where performers
will tour an active strip mine?
Mr. Malpede does not really know, since he is not selling
tickets. (All the events are free.) But if the performances
turn into a chaotic jumble, with cars chasing the
performers down narrow mountain roads, that would at least
be historically accurate.
In 1968, "it never occurred to us that there would be that
many reporters," said Mr. Edelman, who helped plan
Kennedy's trip. "We had a caravan of what seemed like 50
cars that was following us through rural roads snaking
through the hills."
Almost as intriguing are the diverse motives of the actors
who are devoting so many hours to this extravaganza, all
for no pay.
Samuel P. Chandler, a 53-year-old lawyer from Jenkins, was
attracted to the project because he vividly remembers
skipping school - and being suspended for it - to see
Kennedy. He was moved by the testimony he heard that day in
Neon, and now will read the part of Judge George Wooton,
who gave an impassioned speech about the paradox of poverty
in the coal-rich region.
John Childers, a 17-year-old high school senior, was
captivated by the testimony of a student named Tommy Duff,
whom he will play on Sept. 10.
Mr. Duff had been expelled for documenting decrepit high
school conditions in his muckraking school newsletter. "If
I do continue to fight for better education," Mr. Duff told
Kennedy, "will you fight with me?"
"He was a very powerful figure," Mr. Childers said after a
recent rehearsal. "His anger just seeped into the crowd."
Roy Crawford, 52, whose family owns a mineral holding
company, is no great fan of Kennedy-style liberalism. But
he wanted to play the part of David A. Zegeer, a mine
superintendent who testified about the good things that
mining companies had done, from opening hospitals to
financing pension plans.
"I thought no one else would do justice to the part," said
Mr. Crawford, who like Mr. Faust performs in local
community theater. "Zegeer told a part of the story that
was being forgotten."
Mr. Malpede said he was thrilled by the mixed motivations.
Though he said he tried not to impose his political
leanings on his performers, his views seem clear from his
choices of materials.
He founded the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a
performance group that mainly features homeless people. Its
current production is "Agents and Assets," based on
Congressional hearings into assertions, later discredited,
that the C.I.A. had helped take crack to Southern
"This is one of the few re-enactments I know of that does
not involve war or conflict," Mr. Malpede said of "RFK in
EKY." "That is the conventional notion of theater. This is
about ideas. It is like putting worms in your garden so it
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