When novelist Silas House and and singer songwriter Sam Gleaves were commissioned to collaborate on a play by the Southern Foodways Alliance, they were thrilled at the opportunity to work together.
“We were very happy about that because we’ve been friends for a long time,” House says. “We’re mutual admirers of each other’s work, so we launched right into it.”
The catch? The show had to be about corn.
“It was a daunting task — to write an entire play about corn, of all things — but once we got into it, we saw how present corn has been in the lives of Southerners, so while it is about corn, it is also just as much about community, and food, overall,” Silas House wrote in an email about “In These Fields,” the folk opera he and Gleaves wrote that plays Friday at the Downtown Arts Center.
The one-night only show is the second performance of the 45-minute folk opera. It premiered in October in Oxford, Miss.
“Once we did it in Mississippi, we began to get so many requests to do it in Kentucky that we mounted the show in Lexington as a fundraiser for the food programs at the Hindman Settlement School,” House wrote.
A large portion of proceeds from Friday’s performance will be donated to help children enrolled in the settlement school’s summer learning programs.
The play, which features six monologues, six songs, a square dance and an overture, explores the relationship between Southern food and agriculture via a diverse group of fictional characters that embody the South’s diversity.
“We were also thinking a lot about the way Southerners are shamed for the kinds of food they eat and how present shame is for so many people who are thought of as the Other —LGBTQ folks, people of color, women, working class people, etc.,” House wrote.
The play opens in the 1800s with a Cherokee woman describing her family’s removal during the “Trail of Tears” before moving on to the tale of Sarah, a former slave who recounts her life before freedom. The audience also meets a 1920s sharecropper who lost everything in a flood, a female moonshiner, a Southern woman of color battling stereotypes about agrarian people as she attends college up north, and a gay Southern man mourning the death of his mother.
Gleaves composed the music with an eye on the South’s cultural diversity as well.
“Our traditional and roots music from the South is such a multicultural music, so I tried to reference music from all those traditions in the songs that I wrote,” Gleaves said, and the folk opera “blends country and all kinds of different songs from the roots music repertoire of the South.”
The monologues are interwoven with song, with actors — many of whom are musicians in their own right —playing their instruments onstage as part of their characterization.
House says he was a little surprised by the emotional response of the premiere audience in Mississippi.
“Lots of crying and head-nodding,” House said.
“This has been a very hard year, for all of us, I think,” House wrote. “So many of us feel the election was just pummeling and relentless. And there’s been so much loss this year, and this 24-hour news cycle makes us so informed that sometimes it seems like everything is falling apart. But when we come together around a table and break bread together, when we get together with family and friends — that’s when we see what is really important: friendship, family, community. That’s what this show is about, and I think anyone can relate to that.”
If you go
‘In These Fields’
What: Folk opera by Silas House, Sam Gleaves
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St.
Tickets: $20 general admission, $10 students with valid college ID, free ages 12 and younger; available only at the door