A More Perfect Union

A troubled Southern community turns to theater for healing

| March / April 2003

You could hear a pin drop in the theater tonight. It’s not often you hear the word “nigger” on stage in the South. You certainly don’t expect to hear it in a family-oriented musical production—and it’s almost impossible to imagine a community rallying around such an unsettling work of art. But on this summer night in Union County, South Carolina, folks have gathered for the first time to witness—and perform—a communal theatrical creation called Turn the Washpot Down. There will never be another night like it, overflowing with the cheers and tears of people who have stuck with each other through many hard times.

The performance features a cast of about 100 black and white folks from this rural Southern community, telling the true stories of the people of Union County. These tales—many of them untold for centuries—are metaphorically hidden in an old washpot in the woods where slaves used to congregate in secret. The play is a group effort to pull Union County back from the brink of disintegration. The historic area is not only economically strapped with the collapse of the textile industry, it’s also notorious as the home of Susan Smith, who in 1994 drowned her two children by driving her car into a lake, then invented a story of a black carjacker to take the blame. Two years ago, Art Sutton, who owns local radio station WBCU, organized the citizens of Union County to consider doing something about its plight. Unlikely as it sounds, they turned to a cultural solution. They hired Community Performance Inc. (CPI) to come to Union and help them develop a play.

CPI is a unique Chicago-based theater team that collaborates with communities on original plays to reenergize town pride, discover or remodel their communal identity, heal the wounds of a crisis or a rift, or examine some burning social issue like homelessness or health care. Richard Owen Geer, CPI writer and director of Turn the Washpot Down, calls these projects “of, by, and for” the people.