To this day, I remember vividly the trips our family took to our cabin in the Virginian Appalachians. My brothers, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents spent a great deal of time there. Summers, weekends, holidays. Our family reunited for rejuvenation, fellowship and fun.
The three bedroom cabin (really, the bedrooms were more like glorified closets) wasn’t anywhere near large enough for our entire clan, so many a night we’d be forced to set up a dozen tents in the meadow just yards away from the cabin. And, as the bright daytime sun gave way to the eery darkness of a mountain night, we’d start up a large fire and join each other encircled — and, at least in my young mind, protected — by the tents around us, we’d share recent happenings, long-ago family tales and, better yet, haunting ghost stories.
I imagine that a great deal of my knowledge of family history stems from those fireside chats — oral, family folklore passed down from elderly aunts, Grandpa and Grandma.
The legacy of Southern and Appalachian folklore permeates small towns and hamlets across Dixie. Here in the South, our history — both personal and communal — combine to create one of the greatest stories ever told. Joy and heartache. Triumph and despair. Life and death.
Growing up in the small, Virginia mountain town of Lexington, author and performer Peter Neofotis heard similar stories, folktales and legends. His debut work, “Concord, Virginia,” is inspired by his childhood memories of his hometown and its people. Those stories, no doubt brilliant on their own, take the form of a nearly mythological epic in the tales contained in his book.
On May 21, Neofotis brings his oral imagination to Wilson’s Theater of the American South. There, he’ll perform one of his stories, “The Botanist.” The tale recounts the fictional story of a young man accused of oral sodomy, his trial and eventual exoneration, and draws on Neofotis’ boyhood memories of life as an openly gay teenager in Lexington and the life experiences of other gay people there.
“It’s not everyday a small town like Wilson is so open about having a night of gay performance, Neofotis, who is gay, says, noting he’s not even opted to perform his gay story in his own small, hometown.
Peter Neofotis, a gay writer and author of the story collection “Concord, Virginia” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009), will be presenting his story “The Botanist” for one night only as part of Theater of the American South. Drawn from the writer’s own experience of growing up gay in the rural South and from an account of a 1960s sodomy trial, this story tells the tale of a young college student who is persecuted for his homosexuality. “The Botanist” is both heart-wrenching and hilarious. Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre, Barton College. 9:30-11 p.m. theateroftheamericansouth.org.
“When you grow up in a place like Lexington or even Wilson, you get to know people in a way that is very intimate,” he says. “You know the people around you, you know everyone, their family and their history because your dad grew up with their mom or dad. When any little thing happens to anyone the levels of connectedness really amplify.”
Neofotis’ fictional Concord could be any town in the rural South. The 11 stories contained within his work tells the story of townspeople one knows from personal experience: a hunter, fisherman, artist, patriot, carpenter, town fool. The stories follow the life of the town and its residents from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. And, while each story can rightly stand on its own, they are all woven together with familiar faces, places and voices creating a single, timeless and classical tale.
More than a writer, Neofotis is also a storyteller — taking the words he has written and transforming them into spoken art.
“I think that when we speak we are much more careful with our word choices than we actually think,” he says. “Perhaps it has something to do with the modern world. I don’t know. There’s so much information out there now. It’s so easy to write something up on your computer, type it up and print it out. You’ve written something but I really think the transferring my writing to an oral form has made me a great deal better. It’s forced me to be very careful with the words I choose. All the words in every sentence I’ve had to perform and wrote it with that knowledge, so if I didn’t like something I changed it.”
Neofotis’ work, especially his performance art, has earned him a rightful place in the legacy of great, Southern oral tradition — a tradition he says is important to our culture.
“What I like about doing what I do or watching other people do this is that it evokes a sense of imagination,” he says. “It really does, I think, expand our minds in a way that makes us more intelligent people. When you’re watching a move you don’t have to use your imagination at all with all the images foing across the screen that are really spoon-fed to you. There is no real thinking involved. It’s different when someone is telling a story. It becomes a real, shared experience. You’re pulling from their images and feelings of a description that is yours but it becomes theirs as well. They have to create a story for themselves as I’m telling it.”
He adds, “It’s all very valuable, and I think it allows you to be in creative ways of living. It calls you to re-imagine the world in a way you want the world to be.”