But the story tellers with heart were found this last Wednesday in the heart of New York City near Times Square performing for a one nighter in the famed Feinstein’s 54 Below.
Throughout the last couple of decades there have been artists of all sorts depicting the stories around Tar Creek, the chat piles, the buy-outs, the tornado and of course what was once one of our neighboring towns, Picher. Lots of these stories got a piece of it right, but honestly, we have had a complicated story to tell and lots of people give it their all. Each has been appreciated, plays, poetry, geology-based books, even a couple of movies.
But no one had ever thought to just put it all to song and write the musical, until a young man based in theater saw some visual images he had to research to even find out where they had even been taken.
He convinced two of his friends to join him on a quest to learn about the place he had discovered to be Picher, Oklahoma. Their research led them to reach out to me in a simple email. I get lots of emails just like theirs and responded much like most of the others by committing to help connect them to the land, the water and our people if they ever decided to come to visit.
When they arrived at the Joplin airport, Kimberly Barker from the Joplin Globe both greeted them and led them to Picher, where I connected with the group.
They already knew they had to find where Hoppy Ray’s Pool hall and past time mining museum was and to walk in that space looking over to see where the Country Girl Cafe had stood. They walked to see Soupy Suman’s Miners’ Park and see the vastness of the wide-open prairie landscape stacked with mine tailings we all call chat piles.
It would not have been predicted, but just after they had marveled at the Picher gorilla and posed for the picture that would mark the overwhelming moment for them, John Sparkman unexpectedly stopped and offered to take them all up one of the town’s chat piles in his pickup truck.
The images one sees on that pile are the what’s not there anymore: the neighborhood roads, the driveways, the trees in rows, row after row. What I saw were the memories of the houses once filled with families based right below that mountain and across the road another mountain marred by the tornado that helped literally take the town away and take the fight out of those who had stayed put until that sign from God made the decision to leave happen for them.
These young writers, producers and musicians put the whole history of the place to song in a powerful way that depicts the emotional trauma that was experienced by trapped people in a place they loved that did and could clearly harm them.
I saw a phrase on every side of waste-bins on Broadway on the way to the event “DON’T BE AFRAID OF ANYONE” and wondered who inspired that? But that message was one through these decades I have had to muster through. It can be easy to be afraid. Of people, or of places, or situations.
As the sister of a thespian who was born talking and quite frankly loves the art of it, finding chances to find my own voice early on were rare. And it you are silent it is easy to get good at being afraid and being a failure at bravery.
Through the years there have been causes large enough to help words froth. The greater the cause, the easier it is to find courage. Whether that was Native Rights issues including preserving our culture to suicide prevention and teaching sex education and being the HIV/AIDS educator for the Miami Public Schools. These qualified and were the catalyst that worked.
The ones that have kept me going for the last quarter century have been those around our complex toxic mess, protecting our children from it and the hope this place may be more habitable in the future for them.
Not being a scientist has not stopped me. There are scientists, researchers, medical professionals who speak for me in venues we provide for them. The facts are simple. We can prevent childhood lead poisoning. Period. We remove the lead from their environment, inside and outside and “voila” no child is poisoned. We just haven’t got that job done yet in Ottawa County, we have much more chat to deal with and many more residential yards to replace before our kids have a real chance.
The Picher Project gets that story right and humbly tells a piece of mine, my struggle to be brave enough to speak out for the injustice we face and the environmental justice deserved.
Hooray to these young performers and a generous thank you for singing out bravely. I hope the world hears you.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim