In the small town of Spivey's Corner, N.C., a longstanding folk tradition that has been lost in many parts of the world continues to thrive: the old-fashioned art of hollerin'.
In some areas of the Southeast, and in other areas of the world, an advanced type of hollerin' used to exist as a way for rural neighbors to communicate in an age before telephones, and that is what contestants in Spivey's Corner National Hollerin' Contest are trying to preserve. The contest is the inspiration behind the BCTC theatre program's latest world premiere production, The Greater Watauga County Annex's 17th Annual Hollerin' Contest — Sponsored by Mabel Meriwether's Blackberry Jam. Let's just call it Hollerin' Contest for short.
Penned by North Carolina native Jonathan Fitts, Hollerin' Contest is the fourth world premiere the BCTC theater program has produced since Tim X. Davis founded the program in 2005.
Davis, a native of Murfreesboro, Tenn., met up with Fitts during their joint stints with Burning Coal Theatre's 2014 performances of David Edgar's Iron Curtain Trilogy in London, England.
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Fitts, who is a dramatic writing graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, had been fascinated by the cultural phenomenon since his undergraduate days at Appalachian State University, where he heard of the town of Spivey's Corner and the Hollerin' Contest. (If you Google "hollerin" several Spivey's Corner links pop up at the top of the search, including a number of videos from the contest.)
"I thought it was just the most amazing thing I had come across in a long time," Fitts says. "In addition to being a whole lot of fun, I thought it was an amazing way of preserving centuries-old tradition. It's like nothing you see in the modern world."
In his research, Fitts learned that there were different types of hollers or calls for different purposes
"If there was danger, before there was language, the easiest way to communicate was to holler," says Fitts. "As linguistic impulses started to develop, the hollerin' started to take on different qualities, different tones and it became a language all its own."
That language is broken down into four different kinds of hollers in the Spivey's Corner contest, many of which audiences can expect to hear in the play, including distress, functional, communicative or pleasure hollers.
"They had a holler for everything," says Davis, who also directs the show. "It's really interesting to see how much a part of the culture that was at one time."
"It even made me think back to when I was a kid and I would hear my dad holler across the fields at one of the livestock," says Davis.
But the play isn't just designed for cultural preservation. It is also designed to be an entertaining comedy for young audiences.
The story centers around a 13-year-old boy named Jack, who hopes to break his father's record of winning the most hollerin' contests, when a new girl named Jill threatens to beat him with her own advanced hollerin' skills. Jack is determined to do whatever it takes to remove Jill from the competition and hijinks ensue.
Davis, who says the show is a "crazy play in a good way," is proud to be able to offer his theater students the rare opportunity to premiere original work as well as the ability to consult with the playwright if necessary.
"It's always cool to have the playwright to talk to," Davis says. "There were a couple of times when I had specific character-related questions."
As a director, Davis is careful to coach his theater students not to overdo a forced southern accent, although the students may well have their own to draw on.
"One thing I feel like people never understand about the south is that there are a myriad of local dialects within a specific area," Davis says, "so I kind of wanted that to evolve sort of naturally, and I really wanted to avoid anyone putting on the thick, clichéd dialect."
"It's such an underrepresented community," says Fitts, who is now based in Los Angeles and working on television writing projects. "So often depictions of the South on TV are so one dimensional. As a southern writer that's one thing that I'm actively trying to work against."