'Twisted Roots': Two-act drama sets Emma Bell Miles' poems to music

'Twisted Roots': Two-act drama sets Emma Bell Miles' poems to music

July 31st, 2014 in Chattnow Art

Featured in "Twisted Roots" are, from left, Delonda Mangione, Tom Brown, Scarlet Farr, Tammy Lewis, Marcy Paulson, Robert Cyphers and Peggy Douglas. Not pictured are Annie Harp and Joe Ridolfo.

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Chattanooga's Emma Bell Miles looks like a writer sturdy and stubborn enough to climb mountain peaks. She stares out of a 19th-century photograph, dark hair swept high above direct eyes and a jutting jaw. In addition to being a wife and mother she clambered up barely marked Appalachian paths even in snow, wind and rain, capturing life there in her poems, paintings and prose as delicate, sparkling, strong and sharp as a crystal snowflake.

A century before Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jonathan Safran Foer made American readers swoon over magic realism, Miles' wild, inventive "The Spirit of the Mountains" mixed banjo lyrics and well-digging descriptions, her detailed paintings of wildlife and log cabins with recipes for mysterious potions and conversations among pigeons and larks.

IF YOU GO

¦ What: "Twisted Roots."

¦ When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 1-2, 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 3.

¦ Where: Mountain Arts Community Center, 809 Kentucky Ave., Signal Mountain.

¦ Admission: $8 students, $10 all others.

¦ Phone: 423-886-1959.

¦ Website: signalmacc.org.

She wrote that Chattanooga's mountain dwellers understood that "solitude is a deep water and small boats do not ride well upon it ... Their intimacy with it dates from babyhood" when mountain children build frog houses from twigs and weave necklaces from scarlet wildflowers and golden autumn leaves.

She described mountaineers as "mystic, dreamers, given to fancies often absurd but often wildly sweet." She knew the harsh, lonely life also aged mountain families prematurely and, in one striking passage, described a young mother's face tumbling into a web of wrinkles while watching her youngest boy learn to walk the rocky trails.

Miles died of tuberculosis in 1919 at age 40. But this weekend her life will unfold in "Twisted Roots," a choreopoem of 14 of Miles' poems set to Appalachian music by Tom Brown. The two-act drama, set in the early 20th century, was written by poet Peggy Douglas and will be directed by Trish Wileman. It touches on topics of love, loss, abandonment, racial tension, alcoholism, poverty and the importance of family, nature and spirit.

Several of Miles' paintings will be on display for these performances at the Mountain Arts Community Center on Signal Mountain.

Contact Lynda Edwards at ledwards@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391.