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Texas | Columns | They Shoe Horses, Don't They?

Texas pride and heritage comes alive
in Heart of the Tin Trunk

By Christy Claxton
It is the stories that are the heart of a people's heritage. In a world where homogeneity is the expected norm, a descendent of the Czech people who settled South Central Texas is bringing the pride and history of her people to the stage in Summer 2011. Heart of the Tin Trunk is an original musical that focuses on 150 years of Czech settlement in a new land.

In Heart of the Tin Trunk it takes stories to convince a young college graduate that a family’s most precious heritage is its unique roots. Teresa is looking to the future. With her iPhone in hand, she banters back and forth with her grandmother in song. She doesn’t understand why she should learn to sew a dress from a flour sack or make a garden grow. Along with her 21st century friends, she twitters, she texts, she dances, she sings, she falls in love. What could her ancestors possibly know about today’s world?

Meanwhile her grandmother Melia is looking to the past. In her reveries, she dances the traditional dance, she sings the traditional songs. While her granddaughter is not emotionally bound to the past, grandmother Melia fears contemporary life is eclipsing values like family spirit, determination, church going, and love of the land.

To help her granddaughter understand these ideals, Melia gifts her with the family trunk. In the trunk are memories of another time-- together they discover a quilt, a wedding dress, a picture. These treasures all lead to life-changing stories of hardship, of survival, of celebration, and of romantic love.

Similar to Palo Duro Canyon's heritage play, Texas, which highlights the settling of the panhandle of Texas, Heart of the Tin Trunk celebrates the settling of central Texas with its own drama. Anyone who has ever explored Fayette County, Texas, has experienced the unique and lively people whose ancestors learned to survive while creating a lasting legacy that delights visitors and warms the local folks with ancient pride and history.

How did such a strong influence survive for more than a century? Playwright, Virginia Leech thinks that it is the “act right and fear no one” attitude, powerful work ethic, and civic responsibility of early settlers that instilled today's pride in the community. She believes these values are especially important today as there appears to be a willing ignorance of the past, combined with ambivalence towards the old ethical standards. This has created a concern for the future.

Leech explains, “When telling stories about ancestors, family members have an opportunity to establish a continuity to the past that can help their family with problem solving, as well as self understanding. Stories not told are stories lost. And what is lost is the opportunity for children of today to understand how their ancestors worked hard and overcame difficulties. Today’s children need guideposts in life, heroes to imitate, examples to follow. Family stories can provide that.”

Heart of the Tin Trunk is not angling to be a morality play, but a story about history, strength, pride and identity. Anna, one of the historical characters in the play, sails with her three children on a ship from Moravia in the Czech lands to Galveston, Texas, in search of opportunity for her children. Anna is uneducated and widowed. No written records say that Anna existed. But her great granddaughter is not surprised because women were not considered very important passengers in the 19th century, especially those traveling without a husband. But We know Anna lived because her picture hangs in her great granddaughter's home. In the picture her jaw is set and firm-- a telling of misfortune, disaster and terror that has brought most families to America. But her eyes remain lovely and kind. Just to see her visage is to tempt a story out of her descendants.
Anna of Fayette County
The story of Anna's family is no different from almost every other immigrant family, no matter the nationality. Immigrants often times are victims of misfortune, disaster or terror. And it doesn’t matter if immigrants came to America on the Mayflower, or through the seaport of Galveston Island or by wading the Rio Grande. Most immigrants are victims of something: religious persecution, slavery, poverty, famine, revolution, holocaust, war. And not many immigrants bring wealth or possessions. Many arrived in slave ships, and those didn’t even hold title to their own bodies. But all carry memories of home and the things they endured. In Heart of the Tin Trunk, Anna’s memories are tied to what she carried in the tin trunk.

Leech has been told that her story about the first generation’s pain is film material. There is definitely argument for that. Even so, a play allows the community to engage and become involved; not only as audience members, but as production crew and performers. Those who experience it will hopefully go into their own attics and explore any family treasures for their own stories. Those ancestor stories are rich tales that lie within every one of us.

The play is presented by Backstage Inc., a long standing theater group in South Central Texas. With seed money from the city of La Grange along with business and private donors, production is under way. The musical is expected to premier in late July 2011. As if financial support isn't enough to signal the area's interest in this new endeavor, the highly esteemed Festival Hill at Round Top has agreed to allow Heart of the Tin Trunk to premier in the grand concert hall, which is known internationally for consistent quality and artistry.

Why a musical? Nothing in Czech heritage is done without the music. It is like the heartbeat of a people. It is their joy, their sorrow, their history. As it unfolds in the acoustically superior surroundings of the Festival Hill concert hall, it should resonate with every person present.

Heart of the Tin Trunk premiers July 30 – 31 and August 6 – 7 at Festival Hill in Round Top, Texas. There will be 2 p.m. matinees on the first weekend, as well as 8 p.m. performances on both weekends. More information about auditions and performances can be found at http://www.heartofthetintrunk.com.

Leech concludes with, “What I would like to accomplish with this play? My hope is for grandparents to understand that rich stories lie within their experiences, and each of them is a book. And they need to take some responsibility to tell their stories. “

© Christy Claxton
They Shoe Horses, Don't They?
April 11, 2011 guest column
Christy Claxton is a freelance writer living and working in La Grange, Texas.
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