Mother Hicks, by Suzan Zeder, places us in the town of Ware, Illinois during the Great Depression. We meet three people living on the outskirts of society: a young deaf man, an orphan girl known by the townsfolk simply as "Girl," and a mysterious older woman who lives all alone on a hill outside of town. In the year 1935 times are hard for everyone, but especially for Girl, who—with no family of her own—gets passed around from household to household, until, following clues and whisperings of her heart, she encounters the eccentric Mother Hicks. The townspeople are afraid for Girl: Mother Hicks—or so people say—is a witch. But is she really? A haunting tale told through sign-language and poetry, Mother Hicks recounts the difficult journey we all make in life, the journey to discover who we really are.
Mother Hicks by Suzan Zeder
Teresa Lee, Director
I was first introduced to Suzan Zeder's beautiful play in the 1980's shortly after it was first published. I've been in love with it ever since. She sets the story against the stark backdrop of the 1930's Great Depression, but manages to weave a tale of hope that takes place in one of the most troubled times in our history. But this is not a story of a particular time period. It is a timeless story of loss and longing, and ultimately the healing that comes from love and acceptance. Perhaps now more than ever, I see the relevance of this play in our world today.
Similar to the 1930's, we are currently experiencing a collective sense of loss and fear in our country. Individually we all experience loss in our lives—loss of material possessions, loss of loved ones, loss of health and well-being. When these big events happen in our lives, we often ask "why?" We often look for someone or something to blame. Throughout time people have turned to the supernatural for answers. We seek comfort in mythology or hero worship. True healing is what eventually brings us back to ourselves. This, in large part, is what Mother Hicks allows us to explore.
When we think of the Great Depression era, we often think of the iconic black and white photographs of Dorothea Lange and others. It is important to realize that people lived, loved, suffered and survived in living color. Ironically in this story the "left over" people—Tuc, Girl and Mother Hicks—are the most three-dimensional. They embody the life force that represents our survival when threatened by the one-dimensional dichotomies of a black and white world.
In the theatrical tradition of the ancient Greeks, Zeder uses the lyricism of language spoken by the collective voices of the chorus to engage us in the storytelling. She then challenges us to see the language of the storyteller, Tuc, a character who speaks in the poetry of the senses, but cannot hear. "Mother Hicks is earth, and air, and fire, and water, and blood, and tears..." As you see and hear our story, I hope you are caught up in the adventure and mystery, and perhaps recognize a piece of yourself you've been carrying around with you all this time.
About the Playwright
Currently holding an endowed chair for Theatre/Youth Playwriting at the University of Texas in Austin, Professor Suzan Zeder has seen her numerous plays for young and family audiences performed all over the world. Her play The Taste of Sunrise: Tuc's Story, dramatizing the early life of the deaf man first introduced in Mother Hicks, has played all over the US since its premiere at Seattle Children's Theatre and garnered several awards. Other plays by Professor Zeder include Step on a Crack, In a Room Somewhere, and The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes, all of which regularly receive productions at colleges and theatres across the country. The American Alliance for Theatre and Education as given Professor Zeder the Distinguished Play award three times; in 1996 she was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Suzan Zeder's University of Texas website: http://www.finearts.utexas.edu/tad/people/faculty_and_staff/faculty/zeder.cfm
About The Time Period
On October 29th, 1929, The New York Stock Market Crashed, causing banks all over the United States to shut down, and initiating what came to be known as The Great Depression, which ultimately affected the entire world. It lasted for about a decade, from the years 1929 to 1939. By 1932 a quarter of the workforce was out of work; prices and wages continued to fall; people were left homeless and without money or food.
The economic situation was exacerbated by a drought that hit the Southern Plains (in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado) and lasted for about eight years. That region hardest hit by the drought came to be known as "The Dust Bowl." The yellow dust from the dried up earth hung in the air making it impossible to breathe; children had to wear masks over their faces when they walked to and from school; women covered windows and doors with sheets to try (unsuccessfully) to keep the dirt out of their houses.
Fields turned to deserts for miles in all directions. Families lost their entire farms; thousands of people had to pick up and move elsewhere, anywhere where they thought they might find work and a place to stay. The photograph above represents what would have been a fairly typical sight for many during these difficult years. It appears on the website: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/dustbowl.htm.
But mass migration of the out-of-work and homeless was happening all over, not just in The Dust Bowl. In Mother Hicks we see one family, the Hammons, having to leave Ware, Illinois in much the same way, abandoning their home in the vain attempt to find work and food somewhere else. Their search proves to be in vain; it is possible that some members of the Hammon family end up in terrible slums known as "Hoovervilles."
Hoovervilles were named after President Herbert Hoover (1928-1932), who had been the president in office when the Depression hit, and who tried unsuccessfully during his term to retrieve the country's economy. The rickety shantytowns of shacks pieced together from discarded wood, signs, bits of tar paper, popped up on the outskirts of nearly every city and town, housing the most destitute. Local governments made efforts to get rid of these villages, but Hoovervilles did not begin to disappear until about 1941.
The image above is of a Hooverville in Washington State, and comes from the site http://depts.washington.edu/depress/hooverville.shtml
"While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced that we have now passed the worst and with continuity of effort we shall rapidly recover."
~President Hoover, in his Address to the United States Chamber of Commerce, May 1, 1930
President Hoover was wrong; he lost reelection to Franklin D. Roosevelt in part because of his poor ability to combat the worst effects of the Depression; Roosevelt remained president through the rest of the Depression years and into World War II.
The Depression was one of the worst calamities endured by the modern industrialized world; its severity and duration also contributed to national conflicts resulting in the Second World War.
Now, in 2011, our world once again finds itself in the throes of economic turmoil. Unemployment in this country is at around 9%; people are losing their homes; Americans look to the future with uncertainty and anxiety. Although we have not yet descended into economic hardship comparable to the Great Depression, the possibility looms; it is the fervent hope of all nations that we are able to avoid a depression of the kind that caused such worldwide devastation during the 1930s.
A couple good sites to go to for more about the Great Depresssion:
Every theatrical production has some way of communicating to the audience visually. Even the lone storyteller uses his or her body movements to help tell the story. There are two distinct sources of visual inspiration for this production. One of these sources is the work of the artist, Thomas Hart Benton who became well known as a "regionalist" painter of the Depression era.
The image above is called, "The Approaching Storm." Benton has been called "a painter of action." His paintings often depicted people and landscapes of the Midwest, where Mother Hicks takes place.
For more on Thomas Hart Benton, consult the following website:
This website introduces Ken Burns' documentary about the artist (and has good source sites of its own):
Another visual inspiration for the production comes from the photographs of Dorothea Lange, a famous photographer in the 1930's. The image below was actually taken in 1935, the year our story takes place. It depicts a young girl about the same age as "Girl" who has been displaced from her home because of hard times.
A site for Dorothea Lange's Photographs: http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/lange/index.html
About the Music
Teresa Lee, director of the ASU production of Mother Hicks, discovered early in the rehearsal process that the play's poetry and dialogue lend themselves to a natural musicality; therefore, she decided to have live musicians play music that would have been heard on radios and played in homes during the time of the play. In 1935, folks in the midst of hard times drew much pleasure, consolation, and strength from music they listened to. So many were struggling just to have enough to eat; music—and other entertainments, like the theatre and movies—helped them escape for a time the woes and difficulties they encountered in their everyday lives. Music with a joyous, Big Band sound—"Happy Days Are Here Again," and "Puttin' on the Ritz," for example—took folks away from their troubles. Orchestras of fifteen to twenty musicians with famous bandleaders like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey were performing swing, Broadway tunes, songs from those recent films called "talkies," and a new kind of music called "jazz."
But many were playing music hearkening back to humbler roots, and singing songs from folk traditions that more closely reflected the lives of everyday, hard-working Americans. Singers like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, blues singers like Ethel Waters and Robert Johnson were chronicling in song the hardships so many endured. There was also a new style of music—known then as "hillbilly music," and featuring groups like The Carter Family—gaining popularity, that would soon spawn what we now think of as Country and Western Music, and even Bluegrass. In Mother Hicks, the musicians sing songs from The Carter Family, as well as an old 19th century Stephen Foster tune that resonated with the people of the 1930s, as it does—for some—even today: "Hard Times." The refrain goes:
It's a song and a sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door.
Hard times, come again no more.
A couple good sites about Music of the 1930s:
About Sign Language
American Sign Language, or ASL, is a complete language in and of itself, employing hand gestures and movement, the body's position, and facial expressions. According to the American Sign Language website (see complete listing below), American Sign Language is the fourth most common language used in this country.
While no one is certain when it came into being, there is the general acceptance of the early 1800s as its first appearance (probably a variation on FSL, French Sign Language). In 1817 the first School for the Deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut.
ASL is a rich, complex language, with metaphors and poetic turns, with jargon and regionalisms. In Mother Hicks, Tuc communicates using ASL; as is hopefully made clear, ASL is not a mimed shorthand for English (or any other language). It is a language all its own, a clear and distinct entity—just as Tuc and Girl and Mother Hicks are unique, valuable identities irrespective of the community's skewed opinions of them.
Below is a chart of hand and finger positions for English Alphabet:
The picture above is from a good website: http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/topics/wallpaper1.htm
American Sign Language:
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