’round the bend: Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show)

Amy Surratt Photo by Greg Laffey

Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) recently closed The Club at La MaMa’s season. Primarily co-written with her partner, Tosha Rachelle Taylor, Amy brought a raucous, biting, and transformational reckoning to us yankees. Amy mobilizes an Audre Lorde epic narrative form of “biomythography,” blending poetry, fiction, biography and movement into a powerful brew of life, loss and learnin’ for us to guzzle – just like an ice-cold six-pack of Mountain Dew. She toys with us, dodging and weaving yarns about a life manufactured and meaningful. An effective seduction, there is enough truth in the tall tales to keep us believing and bound to the ride.

A recently self-annointed “mess maker” myself, I found set designer Gregory Laffey’s makeover of The Club into one of those relic and garbage filled yards highly enviable and extremely effective. Before a word is spoken, we’re transported to the kind of rural outposts that I equate with the upper and outer reaches of “live free or die” New England or “the 2nd amendment is my gun permit” Pacific Northwest. However, once the show begins, it’s clear that this porch is from Amy’s childhood home in southern Appalachia, a complex, multivalent world filled with complicated, multilayered humans who are so often subjected to exploitation and constantly and persistently reduced to the crassest of stereotypes. Amy’s chugging a beer on the porch at the top of the show and describes a pageant dress image of herself before taking us deeper into a pastiche of memories, monologues, songs and scenes from the New River Valley and Southwestern Virginia. She details looking through an old album at pictures of herself at the age of 3 or 4, wearing a big, poofy, purple dress:

Looking cute-as-a-damn-button. And the photos said PROOF in block letters overtop of part of the image. PROOF. I usta flip through that album and look at pictures of Baptisms, and church revivals, birthday parties, and horses, and cars and mountains, And me, and think… PROOF? PROOF of what? What does that mean? What does it PROVE? You see, what I didn’t know was that For my mama, the PROOF was good enough. She didn’t wanna purchase an image​, when she had the REAL THING. The REAL Amy Surratt. I’m Amy. But I’m not Amy. But I’m not NOT-AMY. OK, let me try again? All of this started because I was wondering if I was REAL. A real Appalachian. Authentic Americana, you know?

There are no coal or iron ore miners here, but plenty of abandoned mines to find trouble in. The air is thick with decimation, a potent sense of loss permeates as we consider a community corrupted by the end of a dominant industry and increased corporate pollution. But, The Nick Horner Family Band and a spectacular ensemble cast of Spencer Lutvak, Jo Chiang, Avon Bashida, Jane Stiles O’Hara, Fleur Voorn, and Tosha R. Taylor balance the pathos with lively musical and dance sequences.

Mountain Dew Photo by Greg Laffey

Among the numbers, there is a bit with lotsa good ol canned Mountain Dew, references to real ‘shine’ and a fast and dirty dig at Hillbilly Elegy. She saved me $20 (or whatever it sells for), thank you, and gave us a glimpse into a father as difficult and unfathomable as any mythical patriarch:

My father is a moonshiner and an auto-body mechanic, The back acres of my childhood home are filled with junkyard cars and parts. He restores totaled cars that most people would give up on. He is very good at it. He is, in his own way, an artist. And so his identity is bound up in cars, and alcohol, and outrunning the law. It’s a fucked up way to learn the truth, but thanks to my father, I have a healthy disrespect for authoritarianism.

The Mountain Dew table song, chugging and juggling act foreshadows a later, darker sequence where Amy is drowned in it, forced, arms held up and head held down, into a basin full of it until she is soaked and dripping with the nuclear waste colored liquid. There is also a surreal beauty pageant dress covered in Dew cans that Amy appears in for a psychedelic round of “You’re Looking at Country” as “Miss Virginia Junior Queen Miss Summer Autumn Winter Spring Miss AIM-erica! Amy Surratt! [beat, as afterthought:] This year, sponsored by Mountain Dew.”

Wild and raw, subversively crafty and exquisitely crafted, Amy Surratt’s FIRST AND LAST (show) sneaks in hard gut-punches beside belly-laughs. A monologue about her brother’s drug addiction stings and the mystical recurring characters of a Rocking Horse (mother) and Deer Skull (brother), in headpieces by set designer Gregory Laffey, slide us into a world that is both foreign and familiar. All families have fucked up histories, but not all artists can do the personal anthropology to excavate the cultural artifacts and signifiers as profoundly as Amy Surratt and her creative team (Kristen Holfeuer, Director, Niki Afsar, Assistant Director, Dusty Childers, Costumes, Cecilia Durbin, Lighting, Matt Voyno, Sound and s.o. O’Brien & Erin Lemkey, Video and Media) have done here. The wealth of reference points, the fantastical characters, the evocative visual designs and the razor sharp, barbed wire writing accumulates into a hard hitting phenomena of a production. Despite moments of joviality, the take away is no joke:

Addiction, poverty, and violence do NOT come out of a vacuum — They are the result of​ exploitation​. All the religion, hard work, determination and desire in the world Is not gonna stop it. You cannot wash away these narratives. Not with the water that has been polluted. My Home taught me that Those Who Profit from having you underfoot will MINE you And UNDERmine you And when that’s not enough they will blow the tops off of your goddamn mountains And leave you with wasteland That will change your home from a community to a breeding ground for trauma. And if you protest They will use your individual symptoms of distress to justify their disease While they hide that they are the cause. And if you are not vigilant they’ll make you LOVE them for it.

Photo by Carolina Restrepo

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