When American roots singer-songwriter Martha Redbone first started working on Bone Hill – The Concert, she set out to tell her distinctive family story. The more she presented staged readings of the interdisciplinary production that features William Blake’s poetry set to Appalachian mountain music, the more she realized she was telling the stories of so many other family histories.
“We spoke to people from all over the world who had remembered stories that their grandparents told them, stories from when they came from Italy in the beginning of the century or when they came after the war. There was a family who came from Delhi in the 1990s,” Redbone tells the Houston Press in a phone interview from her home in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It’s what it means to be from the foundation of America.”
Redbone spent her pre-teen years in the Black Mountain region of Kentucky, an area stacked with coal, coal and more coal. Redbone, who comes from Cherokee, Shawnee, Choctaw and African roots, had family members, including a grandfather and uncle, who worked in the mines.
In eighth grade, Redbone moved to New York City, where she has basically lived ever since. When her family members and town elders from Black Mountain started leaving the planet for the next realm, she sought a way to pay tribute. She eventually scored a commission from Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, whose "New York Voices" program helps artists create musical theater pieces.
A fully realized three-act musical by Redbone and her husband/musical collaborator Aaron Whitby is in the works, but the theatrical version of Bone Hill – The Concert features Redbone’s long-running Bone Hill Band telling the story of four generations of a family during and following the aftermath of the Indian Removal Act, which was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1830.
The communal narrative and music, ranging from traditional Cherokee chants and bluegrass to country and funk, chronicles the Trail of Tears, the federal government’s followup efforts to oppress Native Americans and African-Americans in the Mid-Atlantic states and the coal-mining industry that took off in the early 1800s.
“Most people don’t associate Appalachian mountain music with people of color, let alone people of color living in Appalachia,” explains Redbone. “We thought there would be an interesting story to share with everybody, since my family had been there since the beginning of time. It’s a story that’s always been there but nobody knows.”
Politically, Bone Hill has proved timely. As Redbone and her collaborators developed and presented the piece, news about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota exploded on social media.
“It’s exactly the same story 200 years ago in and around Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, but only back then it wasn’t oil, it was coal. The people were driven off the land by federal laws and state legislation, which forced Indian removal over the period of 70 years,” says Redbone, an activist for Native American and African-American initiatives who received a Red Ribbon Award at the United Nations.
“They systematically moved tribes and forced them to relocate to an unknown territory on foot," she adds. "It was a form of systemic genocide, and there was nothing that people could do back then to fight it.”
Martha Redbone: Bone Hill – The Concert, presented by Lott Entertainment as part of the Joe’s Pub series, is scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. Friday, April 21 and Saturday, April 22, at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Tickets cost $37 to $47. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or check out alleytheatre.org.
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