BEREA — When Silas House got ready to write a new play for Berea College Theatre, he and director Adanma Onyedike Barton thought it would be about mountaintop-removal coal mining, a practice House has railed against for years. Then the summer of 2011 happened.
"I sort of think of it as the summer of hate," House says, "because so much happened in Eastern Kentucky."
In June, a gay couple was barred from a city-owned public swimming pool in Hazard, a staff member of which cited the Bible in keeping them from entering. (The employee was suspended after the incident, and the city issued an apology.)
On July 4, a lesbian couple in Harlan County said people shot fireworks at them while they watched Independence Day celebrations with their families, including young children. Later in the summer, a Letcher County man said he was beaten in Harlan because he is gay.
Never miss a local story.
In July, vehicles belonging to an interracial couple in Berea were spray-painted with racial slurs. Toward year's end, a church in Pikeville voted to ban interracial couples from membership; that decision was later reversed.
"It was one thing after another, all in a pretty short space of time," House says. "So I thought, if I'm going to write a play about what's really happening in Appalachia today, it should really be a play about what's happening in America today."
He noticed a lot of sides bringing up divisive issues such as race, sexual orientation and religion in the national conversation.
"But the thing is, it wasn't a conversation," House says. "It was a monologue.
"So I wanted to write a play where the gay man is not the villain, but the mother who rejects him isn't the villain either."
This Is My Heart for You, which opens Wednesday, is set in the fictional town of Troublesome and focuses on an incident at a swimming pool. A gay couple are swimming, and when one gently brushes a leaf off the other's face, the lifeguard kicks them out.
"I zoomed in on that incident and said, what if one of these boys wasn't out, and that caused him to be outed to his parents?" House says.
A lot of drama ensues, from an emotional confrontation between the man and his mother to protests by anti- and pro-gay factions to a beating of the couple. And, as was the case with several of the situations last summer, the pool incident and its aftermath become national news.
The play portrays some of the people who are against the couple, including the mother of one of the men, as being honestly concerned for her son's spiritual welfare.
Because the incidents depicted are so recent, House says, he is conscious that people on both sides of the issue are in the area, which is why there will be discussion sessions after each performance of the 90- minute, one-act play.
"We as a nation are not talking to each other, we're talking at each other," House says. "When that happens, art has to step in. Art has a responsibility to create a dialogue. And there's no better way to do that than theater. That's why I love the form so much."
House, whose well- regarded novels have included Clay's Quilt, The Coal Tattoo and Eli the Good, has written two other plays: The Hurting Part, which premiered in 2005 at the University of Kentucky Theatre, and Long Time Travelling, which premiered in 2009 at Actors Guild of Lexington.
When House joined the faculty at Berea, where his several posts include National Endowment for the Humanities chair of Appalachian studies, Barton wanted to work with him.
"I really love Silas, and I love his work, so I wanted to do something," Barton says. "So when all this stuff started happening, we said, this is what we really need to do."
House says, "I never would have written this play if Adanma hadn't pushed me to. I mean that in the best way. She wanted something as contemporary as possible, and that made me look at those headlines and think about those things."