“That Book Woman” play celebrates little-known Ky. history

Published 2:43 pm Wednesday, July 3, 2024

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As part of their 75th anniversary season, Pioneer Playhouse in Danville hosted the world premiere of “That Book Woman” on Tuesday. The play is running through July 20.

“That Book Woman” is an original play adapted from the best-selling children’s book by Heather Henson. It was adapted for the stage by Holly Hepp-Galván, who has worked on stage adaptations for the playhouse in the past.

The story celebrates a little-known piece of Kentucky history about packhorse librarians, who brought books to families in rural Appalachia in the 1930s. The librarians were part of the U.S. government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), which gave government jobs to unemployed people during the Great Depression. The librarians were mostly women, and faced many dangers while riding on horseback in the mountains.

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Heather Henson, who is managing director of Pioneer Playhouse which her father, Eben Henson, started in 1950, was fascinated by that piece of Kentucky history. Her book “That Book Woman” follows the story of a young boy named Cal and his family as they live on a farm high up in the mountains during the Great Depression.

In Heather’s book, Cal is proud of all the work he can do around the farm to help his dad, but is ashamed of the fact that he can’t read. His sister Lark loves books, which annoys Cal because he doesn’t see the value in books.

When the book woman starts coming to their house, Cal thinks the woman should bring something more useful. But eventually he warms up to the book woman and sees her as brave for riding in dangerous weather.

“She comes back in the rain, the fog, the cold, the snow, and he starts to kind of respect her,” Heather explained.

Playwright Holly Hepp-Galván fell in love with Heather’s book and the story of packhorse librarians, and wanted to turn the book into a play. She is part of the Kentucky Voices program started by Pioneer Playhouse, which teaches playwriting at prisons.

Pioneer Playhouse would usually put on a Kentucky Voices original play almost every year, but hasn’t done one since before Covid. The original plays usually celebrate pieces of Kentucky history.

Hepp-Galván said she expanded the world of Heather’s book, adding storylines and characters. While the book is geared for children, the play goes deeper into the themes of the time period, and will appeal to all ages.

The play takes place in 1937 during the Great Depression. Cal’s family lives on a farm in the Eastern Kentucky mountains when a man named Aaron Thompson, played by Kevin Reams, wants to build a mine on their property that will bring jobs to the region. Cal’s father John, played by Lewis Wright, tries to fight Thompson’s land grab but sees little hope until a packhorse librarian, played by Mari Blake, offers help through the books she brings.

Cal is played by local 12-year-old Warner Wiles. He acts as a bit of a bully to his siblings who all enjoy books and learning.

“I really like the journey of detesting people and detesting books, and loving it, and then later embracing books and everybody,” Warner said.

Cal’s sister Lark is played by Aaliyah Love, who is 12 years old. She loves reading and likes to be a teacher to their younger siblings Nate, played by Oliver Wiles (8), and Dollie, played by Reia Frey (7).

The kids have some scenes where they get to run around and get their granny all riled up. Reia and Oliver said it’s fun to be a ‘chaos kid.’

“Since I’m a littler kid, I get to be crazy and that’s fun to really make chaos on the stage,” Oliver said.

The young actors have been in local plays at West T. Hill Community Theater and Opening Act Performing Arts. Reia, Oliver and Aaliyah all go to school together, and Warner and Oliver are siblings in real life.

The kids are all excited for their roles and hope to keep acting as they grow up.

Pioneer Playhouse has not had kids perform in plays in about 15 years, Heather estimated. Heather said the kids are very professional and talented.

“We were just amazed at the talent across the board in Danville, because West T. Hill does so much, and Opening Act, so it’s really preparing kids at a young age to do theater,” Heather said.

She said the kids memorized all their lines from day one and are always prepared.

“They ask really intelligent questions about the time period, the material, the accents … they started asking about accents and wanted to get the dialect correctly; it’s pretty unusual for 12 year olds,” Heather said.

Hepp-Galván added characters, including the character of Digger, a moonshiner who loves books and quotes famous writers.

“He’s not like any moonshiner you can imagine caricature-wise; we didn’t want at any time to make a caricature out of these people, they’re all real people,” Hepp-Galván said.

Hepp-Galván worked with Heather and did research on what else was happening in history that they could add to the play.

“I wanted to make sure to capture Heather’s book, and a majority of the lines in the book are in the play, but then expand the world to look at other events that were going on there, like land grabs and how difficult it was to be a packhorse librarian,” Hepp-Galván said.

She touches a little on some of the struggles that packhorse librarians went through, and how the WPA program worked.

The librarians only got money for their salary, and not for the horses or books. In small towns back then, people would build makeshift libraries and get books donated from people all over the country.

The librarians would also have to rent the horses and pay for their food. They would ride alone up to 20 miles a day in all weather, and up steep mountains. They would face dangers of the wild like snakes, mean dogs, bears, and the risk of their horse stumbling and being left alone in the woods.

In addition to the Aaron Thompson storyline where he wants to build a coal mine that would uproot some families, there’s another added storyline about how appropriate the books were that librarians brought.

“A lot of these rural people were very conservative, and they were suspicious of strangers, especially if strangers were from a government program; they were suspicious of people from the government, and people did not want to take charity,” Hepp-Galván explained.

The Boyle County Public Library in Danville is having an exhibit on the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky. The interactive exhibit includes historical photographs, vintage memorabilia, and sound and video clips honoring the librarians.

The exhibit will be on display in the Georgia de Araujo Gallery at the library from July 3 to 27, with an opening reception Thursday, July 11 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

In honor of the play, Pioneer Playhouse received a donation of a life-sized horse statue. Local artist Brandon Long painted the statue with historical photos of packhorse librarians. The statue is on display in front of the box office at Pioneer Playhouse, and will be there through the end of the performances.

The play will run nightly from Tuesdays through Saturdays starting at 8:30 p.m. with an optional 7:30 p.m. dinner.