Trigger Warning: This story deals with a show that I saw recently. it deals with racism, racial violence, and rape. If these topics are upsetting to you, you might want to skip this post. Stay safe.
This weekend, I had the unique opportunity and privilege to see Martha Redbone’s Bone Hill: The Concert. It was the final event of Texas Tech University’s symposium Identity and Resistance in Global Contexts.
Bone Hill is a sort of a mix of musical, concert and…something else. As hard as I try to define Bone Hill, it simply defies definition. It doesn’t really fit into any box, it’s just…Bone Hill. It’s simply an experience like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and it’s in a class of its own.
Before I get into what Bone Hill is about, let me try to set the stage and describe how it looks and what I saw. When I walked into the recital hall and I saw no set, no props, nothing that I would expect to see in a traditional musical. There was simply seats for each of the musicians. At that night’s performance, they were Charlie Burnham, Alan Burroughs, Fred Cash, Soni Moreno, Marvin Sewell, Aaron Whitby, and Martha Redbone. Bone Hill was a performance of only them, their voices, their instruments, an occasional dance break from Redbone herself, and the audience’s participation.
So, what is Bone Hill about? Simply put, it tells the story of Redbone’s family, and really it spans the lifetime of her great-grandmother Liza. It starts with her birth, and ends with her funeral. Bone Hill uses a combination of musical performance and what Redbone calls “front porch storytelling”. There’s a combination of spoken storytelling and musical breaks. Strap in, this is going to be a bit of a long post. Consider it making up for getting off schedule last week.
The play starts off with real comments that people have made to Redbone about what race she “appears” to be. It then dives right into the trail of tears, or the long walk, depending on who’s talking. Great-grandma Liza was born after her parents returned to their land from Oklahoma after the Indian Removal Act. After her parents’ deaths she worked as a maid for an English family in what became Kentucky.
I want to take a moment to appreciate Bone Hill‘s honesty. This show doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable realities of the oppression and mistreatment of people of color, especially women of color through history. It doesn’t shy away from use of the “n” word (I don’t think that’s my word to use, even in my quotes), whether in the quotes from the beginning of the show, or dialogue in the show describing racist comments towards other members of her family. Also, there’s no sugar coating that Liza’s “husband”, her employer Mr. Whittaker, is her rapist. He wasn’t married to her, he raped her numerous times, enough for her to have TEN children. However, most of them didn’t survive to adulthood. We only see two of her children in Bone Hill, Nora and Easter. However, Nora doesn’t show up until the end of the show, so most of the focus is on Easter.
As we learn about Easter, we get into my favorite song in the show: Census Man. It’s a fun, tongue in cheek mockery of the absolutely arbitrary was that people define race. Four different times, the census bureau changed Redbone’s family’s race. Nothing changed other than how the census man decided to judge them. It’s really relatable as a biracial person. Race and ethnicity are such strange, fluid concepts, especially for people that don’t fit cleanly into the check boxes on the census forms.
Speaking of race, we soon get introduced to Billy Bone, a farmer from Mississippi who came to Kentucky for better wages in the coal mines. Easter and Billy fall in love, and soon enough Billy wants to marry into the family. The marriage would mean that Easter, her son from her first marriage, and her mother Liza could move in with Billy. It’d mean they’d have a dramatically better life and be more able to afford necessities. However, Liza doesn’t approve, since Billy is black. It’s a view of the anti-blackness that isn’t exclusive to white people. Anti-blackness is a form of racism that has tendrils in far too many aspects of American society.
Either way, regardless of Liza’s thoughts on the relationship, Easter and Billy get married. The family gets bigger as they move into Billy’s house on the hill. Billy works in the coal mine, and Liza, Easter, and her daughters Janice and Sweetcake make cakes to make extra money. This part gets deep into the Jim Crow era of American history, and showcases both Sweetcake and Janice’s experience with racism. Sweetcake becomes romantically involved with a white classmate, and is later beaten on the street. Janice is refused service at a bakery that her family bakes cakes for. There’s no sugarcoating or shying away from the bigotry and violence that they faced. Following the bakery “mysteriously” burning down, Janice goes to New York City, and later she has her daughter Martha.
Martha grew up in Kentucky with Liza, Easter, and Sweetcake. Janice stayed in New York City to work and send back money, and Junior joined the army, eventually settling in Oklahoma. Shortly after Martha’s story begins, Liza passes away at 102 years old.
I don’t think that I can do Liza’s funeral justice, if I’m being honest. It’s so full of emotion, and the pace crescendos to end the show with a bang. The main argument during the funeral is whether Liza should have a burial in the Christian tradition, or if she should be laid to rest in the Cherokee tradition. In the end, everybody realizes that what’s most important is that her bones are laid to rest in her homeland.
Bone Hill is simply an experience. It’s a wave of emotion that I just rode for an hour and a half or so. Even with a post about twice as long as my usual posts, I feel like I’ve only managed to scratch the surface. I would certainly recommend that anybody who has the opportunity to see Bone Hill should go see it for themselves.