Writers: Amy R. Surratt & Tosha R. Taylor
Director: Kristen Holfeuer
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Collaborative theatre artist Amy R. Surratt is out to confront what she calls some “Unfinished Business with Home” in her experimental performance piece Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show), at The Club at La MaMa. In an evening filled with hoedowns, traditional string music, and copious quantities of Mountain Dew, Surratt’s alter ego, former child reality star Amy, confronts the stereotypes and harsh realities of life in southern Appalachia.
The play opens with Amy describing her first memory of being on a stage, triggered by a picture of her wearing a fluffy beauty pageant dress. This memory starts a journey that examines Amy’s formative years among the abandoned iron ore mines of the New River Gorge in West Virginia. The narrative features dream sequences in which a drug addicted deer skull and a maternal rocking horse guide Amy along her path. There’s also live music by The Nick Horner Family and some “swing-your-partner” dancing, along with harrowing accounts of the ways that dying industry, chemical pollution, and drug addiction have ravaged the region and affected her family. The ensemble cast (Jo Chiang, Spencer Lutvak, Avon Bashida, Jane Stiles O’Hara, Fleur Voorn, and Tosha R. Taylor) aids Amy in telling her story.
Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) is a gorgeous take-no-prisoners mess. It captures the ethos of the southern Appalachian region with humor and heartbreak, taking the audience from howling laughter to abject sorrow in a way that mimics Amy’s description of sliding across the seats of her father’s pick-up truck as he whips through the hairpin curves of mountain roads. The frequent references to Mountain Dew serve as a reminder of the region’s long history of thumbing its nose at the law; the syrupy yellow soft drink has become one of the brands most associated with redneck stereotypes, but its name reaches back to the production of moonshine whiskey, a tradition that’s been part of southern Appalachia since pre-Revolutionary War days. Surratt creates a strong connection between the production of “white lightning” and the distrust of authority that she witnessed growing up. The show also features a nod to Honey Boo Boo in a pageant sequence and a direct challenge to J.D. Vance and his 2016 NY Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, which Amy refers to as a “piece of shit.” In fact, FIRST AND LAST (show) could almost be read as a response to Vance’s book.
The design team for FIRST AND LAST (show) is also to be commended. Gregory Laffey’s set, complete with a back porch screen door and piles of useable debris, clearly calls to mind the domicile of a family who either can’t afford to throw anything away or can’t bear to. The costumes by Dusty Childers aka Dust Tea Shoulders goes beyond the ensemble’s bib overalls to include sartorial references to NASCAR, John Deere, and (of course) Mountain Dew. Some of the design elements seem like they might be held together with duct tape, but that feels like a design choice—welcome to Appalachia, y’all!
Early in FIRST AND LAST (show), Amy says of a set piece, “It’s not authentic, but it has the feel of authenticity.” That is an excellent way to sum up the play. The crickets are recorded and the screen door that just slammed leads backstage, but the feeling of authenticity is strong enough that for a moment, we’re no longer in the East Village, we’re in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) is a magical piece of theatre that should not be missed.
Runs until 18 June 2017