Stacey Isom Campbell to write sister play to “When Mountains Move”
Sometimes a writer stumbles on a gold mine of inspiration, but in one Lee professor's case, that mine is filled with coal.
After writing “When Mountains Move” last semester, Associate Professor of Creative Writing Stacey Isom Campbell is working on something as familiar as it is new.
The play, called “Buffalo Creek,” shares a subject matter and setting with “When Mountains Move” but follows the lives of different people.
Set in 1972, forty years after “When Mountains Move,” “Buffalo Creek” follows a young man named Bailey Seeger. Seeger turns 18 and is, therefore, expected to start working in the coal mine. He does so but finds it to be extremely unsafe.
When the coal waste dam bursts, 100 million gallons of water and coal sludge flood into Buffalo Creek, leaving thousands homeless and over 100 dead. Now, three generations of Seeger’s family must live together in one house as they come to terms with the tragedy these circumstances created.
Campbell said that the themes are similar to those of “When Mountains Move” but heavier on togetherness in the context of family.
“‘Buffalo Creek’ is about the relationships between faith and family, the union and coal company, and the past and present,” Campbell said. “It asks: who do you trust when everyone has betrayed you?”
Campbell was commissioned last semester by Professor of Theatre Dr. Christine Williams to write a play for Lee’s theatre department to produce. The result was “When Mountains Move,” which explored the unjust treatment of Kentucky coal miners during the Great Depression era.
Campbell said she wanted to do something regional that a Lee audience could relate to, so she drew inspiration from her grandfather, a coal miner in the early twentieth century. The events of Black Mountain, Kentucky, may be out of her imagination, but Campbell said the coal miners' plight was real.
“[‘When Mountains Move’] is fictional, but it is inspired by historical accounts of Harlan in the 1930s, the preacher-miners who secretly helped get [United Mine Workers of America's] support and the oral histories of the people who remember the struggle,” Campbell said. “The story follows the decade-long struggle of the coal miners for the basic human rights denied them in the 1930s.”
Lillie Mae, one the story’s most prominent heroines, is born under unusual circumstances and is believed by her father to have been given a message from God to her people. As Lillie Mae grows up, she searches for this message.
In last semester’s production, junior music major Caroline Byrd played Aunt Nell Coley, a prostitute who finds Jesus and begins to fight for the rights of the working class and for Christianity. She said the play stresses the importance of community in social justice.
“The play emphasizes the importance of unity and togetherness,” Byrd said. “With the people that you love, you can fight for good causes and for the sake of justice and human rights.”
Junior theatre major Stephanie Wolfe played Trisha Bostock, Lillie Mae’s mother and a strong woman who is constantly holding the group together and inspiring them to fight with her for justice. Wolfe said she sees the theme of a common goal uniting even the unlikeliest of allies carrying on as the Black Mountain story continues.
The two actresses described Campbell as relaxed enough to allow artistic freedom and choice within the acting but driven enough to write a great play and have an instrumental hand in its production and success.
“You can tell her creative mind is always going,” Byrd said.
Campbell is setting that mind to work again as she writes “Buffalo Creek” as a spiritual successor to her previous story.
Campbell will continue revising her play and will submit it to a variety of development opportunities. Upon completion, she will enter it into contests. She said she believes “Buffalo Creek” will possibly see a staged reading at Lee but can offer no guarantees.
Until then, Campbell will write and rewrite until her play is finished.