Fifty years ago, residents of an impoverished county in East Tennessee staged an outdoor drama. They had no experience in any aspect of show business, their county was in a remote mountainous area far from major highways, and many of their fellow citizens objected to the subject of the play. But the show went on anyway.
Wayne Winkler tells the story of that play in his new book, “Beyond the Sunset: The Melungeon Outdoor Drama, 1969-1976.” Winkler is the director of East Tennessee State University’s public radio station, WETS-FM. He is also the author of “Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia.” Both books are published by Mercer University Press.
“This is the story of a community that wouldn’t give up,” says Winkler. “It seemed like they had nothing going for them; everyone they turned to for help thought they were a lost cause. But they pulled together, used what they had available to them and tried to make things better.”
In the 1960s, Hancock County was the eighth-poorest county in the United States. So many residents had moved away in search of jobs that the population had declined by almost half in the preceding 100 years. With no industry, no infrastructure and no natural resources to use other than beautiful scenery, county leaders hoped tourism might provide jobs that would keep Hancock County residents from moving away. But what would attract tourists to this remote area? Perhaps the Melungeons were the answer.
The Melungeons are a mixed-race group of uncertain origin, first documented in the area surrounding Hancock County, Tennessee, in the early 19th century. Because of their dark skin, they faced discrimination, both legal and social. They piqued the interest of newspaper and magazine writers from all over America, who wrote about the legends associated with their origins and concocted a few theories of their own. The Melungeons were a topic that sold magazines; maybe they could sell tickets, as well.
Local residents from all walks of life created the Hancock County Drama Association. They enlisted the help of the theater department of Carson-Newman College (now University) to provide a director, John Lee Welton, and actors to handle the primary roles. They recruited local VISTA workers to help build the amphitheater and take roles in the play. And they commissioned a script from Dr. Kermit Hunter, author of more than 40 outdoor dramas, including “Unto These Hills” in Cherokee, North Carolina; “The Trail of Tears” in Talequah, Oklahoma; “Honey in the Rock” in Beckley, West Virginia; and “Horn in the West” in Boone, North Carolina.
The idea of a play about the Melungeons was controversial in Hancock County. Some county residents didn’t want to call attention to the presence of this mixed-race community. A bomb threat kept volunteers up all night guarding the newly built amphitheater before the play opened. And only a few residents believed that paying customers would make the journey over narrow, twisting mountain roads to the amphitheater in Sneedville, the county seat.
In “Beyond the Sunset,” Wayne Winkler uses contemporary press reports, long-forgotten documents, and interviews with participants to chronicle the struggles of an impoverished rural Appalachian county to maintain its viability in the modern world – and the unexpected consequences of that effort.