The residents of Harlan County are used to skewed depictions of their community.
"Harlan isn't as bad as everybody says it is, like Justified says it is," says Whitney Barger, 15.
How is it different?
"We don't have bazookas or anything," Whitney says. "It's a nice place to live. It's small, and everybody knows each other."
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Whitney is one of 40 residents of Harlan and surrounding counties performing in Higher Ground 3: Talking Dirt, a community play produced by the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College and Carpetbag Theatre, an ensemble theater company in Knoxville.
Whitney and her castmates will travel from Harlan to Richmond to perform the play Monday at Eastern Kentucky University in partnership with the college's Appalachian studies program.
The play is the third installment of the Higher Ground series of community plays produced by SKCTC Appalachian Center staff members Robert Gipe, Theresa Osborne and Ann Schertz.
Since 2005, the trio have come to the community to gather stories about contemporary issues facing mountain residents and have recruited those same residents, many with no theatrical background, to act and sing. Previous productions tackled prescription drug abuse and mine disasters.
Talking Dirt focuses on young people in the mountains and particularly addresses the exodus of youths who leave the mountains to get jobs or go to college.
Elana Scopa, 30, is one of the young people who left and came back. A Harlan native, Scopa attended SKCTC before transferring to EKU to study biology. She is now an assistant biology professor and plays Home Fry, a young woman who got a job hundreds of miles away from Harlan but drives home every weekend to visit.
When she was a student at EKU, Scopa says, "I was one of those same people. Every weekend I was driving home to be with my friends and family."
After she earned her master's degree, Scopa came home to teach.
"It was always very important to me to come back because this community is so important," she says. "I want to build it up and just make it positive."
But there are a lot of economic roadblocks keeping young folks from staying in the mountains. It's a complicated issue, fraught with emotional baggage, and the play doesn't shy away from that.
"You can either go into the coal mines or go into health care or go into education," Scopa says. "Really, those are pretty much the big jobs around our area. It's really an issue of jobs being available and having a reason for young people to stay."
The show, which debuted in 2011, spotlights issues facing mountain youth, but it includes broad cross-sections of the community.
Ronnie Walker, 62, was a nurse for 28 years before working at an independent living center.
"I've been serving people all my life," says Walker, who plays Limehouse, an undertaker and father figure in the show.
He has worked on all three Higher Ground installments in some capacity.
"I think all of the three plays just brought the community together," Walker says. "It shows the diversity of community and that we can work together to deal with our problems."
One strength of the show, Walker says, is that it isn't preachy and doesn't try to oversimplify the area's complex problems.
"We deal with some controversial subjects for our area," Walker says. "We put it out there, and we let people decide. We let the audience answer."
Walker's perception of the play as a way for residents to share reflections is in keeping with Gipe's mission.
He is excited to see the play traveling to EKU and was thrilled that last year's debut was featured in the The New York Times, but he doesn't think the main purpose of the Higher Ground series is to educate outsiders or dispel stereotypes. It is truly meant for the local audience.
"I've been most interested in this as a way for the community to talk among itself," Gipe says. "There's a lot about it that's keyed to a local audience."
The script, written by Carpetbag Theatre's executive director, Linda Parris-Bailey, collaborating with residents, assumes that its audience will understand aspects of local culture that outsiders might not grasp, including the unspoken understanding of overlapping social entanglements, geography and local lore.
What's more, the heavy decisions facing young people aren't cut and dried. Do you stick around Harlan and hope to find one of the few jobs available? Do you leave and come back when you can? How a young person negotiates those choices form the crux of the play's conflict.
"We don't have good guys and bad guys," Gipe says. "We have a group of people trying to figure out how to do the right thing."
Chris Taylor, 40, who portrays tough guy Isaac in the play, says it's important for young people to do whatever it takes to stay in Harlan.
"If you leave, then what do you have?" Taylor asks. "You don't have Harlan County; you have a ghost town."