“I Can Hear You”: Appalachian and Puerto Rican musical collaborations in BETSY!

The Music of BETSY! An interview with Ron Short and Desmar Guevara. Video content by Zhivko Illeieff

[Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of April, Art of the Rural will share a series of new writing and multimedia from HowlRoundabout the twenty-one-year artistic collaboration between Pregones Theater and Roadside Theater. The collaboration bridges two vast geographies and cultures, Puerto Rican and Appalachian, and two distinct aesthetics. Curated by Imagining America’s Jamie Haft and Dr. Arnaldo López of Pregones Theater/PRTT, the series explores the creation of BETSY!, a musical about a Bronx singer and performer uncovering the secrets of her family’s history. The musical premiered off-Broadway last week and continues through April 26, 2015 (purchase tickets by clicking here).

BETSY! offers an important lens on a long-term rural-urban exchange and the many threads of commonality along America’s rural-urban continuum. This series is part of a strategy to develop new scholarship and multimedia about the vision, values, practice, and complexities of intercultural artistic collaboration, which will eventually be digested into a learning guide for teaching BETSY!. We’re proud to share the work of HowlRound, Imagining America, Roadside Theater, and Pregones Theater.]

Ron Short in BETSY at Pregones Theater in the Bronx, 2006. Photo by Erika Rojas.

Today, we are pleased to share excerpts from Jonathan Bradshaw’s essay “I Can Hear You: Cross-Cultural Music and Complicated American Identities”, where he interviews musician Syvia Ryerson and musician/playwright Ron Short from BETSY! Within his narrative, he explores the challenging process of collaboration across cultures and genres:

“One of the reasons we have so much difficulty in understanding other people and other people’s cultures and religion is we’re not willing to loosen the choke-hold we have on our own, to give up some part of ourselves to learn something new about ourselves.”

“Appalachian writer and musician Ron Short first began writing the play for Roadside Theater by recovering his own great-great-great-Grandmother’s story as a prostitute and a part of a system of forced Scotch-Irish servitude in the late 1700s. “When I started looking for her,” Ron told me, I found that she had been buried in [. . . ] the Cumberland mountains there between Kentucky and Virginia—and they had not put a marker on her grave [ . . .] So I started looking for her grave and I couldn’t find it. And I was determined to do something and so I said, ‘Well, I’ll make a marker for her. I’ll tell her story.’… Ron’s marker became BETSY!, the product now of multiple collaborations.”

“My banjo teacher, Warren Waldron, once told me of playing traditional Old-Time music: “If you want to play music this old, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” I’ve always loved that idea—that being situated as we are in this moment does not mean we’re ahead of our heritages. Uncovering and recovering the voices that inform who we are requires a lot of intentional creative work. The story of BETSY! is one of uncovering voices and multicultural identities.”

To read Bradshaw’s full essay, visit: http://howlround.com/i-can-hear-you-cross-cultural-music-and-complicated-american-identities

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