Ghosts of Shenandoah National Park at the Field School

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By Clover Carroll

Andy Volenick, Noah Hochrein, Drew Bostic, Ian Bolton, Gus Hankle, Isaac Russell, Jeff Davidhizar, Luke Cantrell, Trevor Vernon, Evan Mace, Eamon Dougherty and Kees Leliveld take a bow at the conclusion of their memorable performance of Shenandoah Boys at the Field School on May 19.
Andy Volenick, Noah Hochrein, Drew Bostic, Ian Bolton, Gus Hankle, Isaac Russell, Jeff Davidhizar, Luke Cantrell, Trevor Vernon, Evan Mace, Eamon Dougherty and Kees Leliveld take a bow at the conclusion of their memorable performance of Shenandoah Boys at the Field School on May 19.

It is 1931, and recent university graduate Ned Harper arrives at Midway School in the Blue Ridge Mountains to teach the children of local families who farm or work the apple orchards that dot the mountainsides. The kids give the naive, rookie teacher a lot of guff at first, requiring frequent recess breaks. But when Ned hauls out his guitar and starts teaching them old timey songs, the students blossom. As a new, deep bond of mutual respect is forged between Ned and his charges, they begin to hear disturbing rumors: the school will soon be closed, their land will be reclaimed—for an unfairly low price—by the U.S. government under the policy of eminent domain, and the boys and their families will be relocated to the flat lands—all for the purpose of creating a new national park.

This is the bittersweet story of “Shenandoah Boys,” an historical musical joyfully performed at The Field School on May 18 and 19 under the direction of drama and art teacher Michelle Nevarr. The artful script, written by Head of School Todd Barnett, was rousingly accompanied by the eight-student Old Time String Band led by music teacher Pete Vigour, who also arranged the authentic period songs performed by an enthusiastic chorus of students to embellish the story—including, of course, the haunting “Shenandoah,” but also “Shady Grove,” “Little Sadie,” “Two Dollar Bill,” and “Stay All Night.” English teacher Jen Buckett, sporting overalls and a straw hat, joined the band on guitar. Heather Hightower also assisted with the musical arrangements.

Excellent acting, clear diction, and pitch-perfect singing by the majority student cast made for a first-class, memorable production. The lively staging saw the irrepressible boys—convincingly played by Andy Volenick, Gus Hankle, Evan Mace, and others—alternately learning Latin in the Midway classroom, playing ball in the orchard, singing in chorus on the stage, and even running down the aisle through the delighted audience that filled the Field School auditorium. Period costumes by Laura Taylor—including knickers, suspenders, and tams—took us back in time along with the guitars, banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles. The hour-long production moved at a good clip, with smooth transitions between past and present including the familiar “two weeks later” sign carried across the stage. The music and singing were just plain terrific, with solos, instrumentals, and jubilant choruses as an integral part of the story.

“Shenandoah Boys” dramatizes the fact that the Secretary of the Interior under President Hoover evoked the policy of eminent domain to purchase 520,000 acres from displaced families for unfairly low prices. “Shenandoah was authorized in 1926 and fully established … in 1935. In the creation of the park, a number of families and entire communities were required to vacate portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Many residents in the 500 homes in eight affected counties of Virginia were vehemently opposed to losing their homes and communities. Most of the families removed came from Madison County, Page County, and Rappahannock County” (Wikipedia). To justify their actions, the government characterized these residents as uneducated half-wits tantamount to savages who would welcome the relocation as an improvement to their lot, but this was inaccurate. After Ned attends a planning meeting in town to protest the school’s closing and hears these attitudes first-hand, he decides to disprove this misrepresentation by bringing the boys to meet the federal agents, and to sing for them. In the show’s climax, their beautiful performance of “Long Journey Home,” led by soloist Xavier Mehta, clearly demonstrates that they are educated, talented, and soulful people; while their cause is lost, their dignity has been preserved.

This central story of dislocation and loss was ingeniously framed by a group of present-day Skyline Drive hikers—played with humor by Luke Cantrell, Isaac Russell, Trevor Vernon, and Ryan Darradji—who highlighted the many benefits offered us today by the Shenandoah National Park. When they meet a park ranger (Jeff Davidhizer), he leads them to see an abandoned stone chimney and takes us back in time by telling the boys the history of the Shenandoah National Park’s founding. They eagerly observe wildlife, such as a black bear and an American woodcock, and round out the show by agreeing that, though it had a dark side, the creation of the park was ultimately beneficial in preserving and making accessible to the public the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Shenandoah Boys” not only made for great theater, it made for good education, allowing the whole school to understand and relive this often overlooked slice of American history as we celebrate the centennial of the National Park system.

The Field School of Charlottesville is a private boys’ middle school serving grades 5 through 8, located on Crozet Avenue across from Crozet Elementary School. In its ninth year, the Field School’s mission is to develop well-rounded boys of character and accomplishment. With an average class size of 13, the 80 students and 10 full-time teachers (plus more part-time) enjoy individual attention, hands-on education, and interdisciplinary units shared among all subjects. Technology is de-emphasized, but used when appropriate—the play’s credits were projected on the wall over a mountain scene. Daily time outside is part of the curriculum, including an hour of sports at the end of each day. Frequent field trips—for example to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, the burn site in Shenandoah National Park, or the IIHS crash test facility in Charlottesville—are the norm, and the entire 8th grade visits Costa Rica every year. The school operates a daily shuttle bus from Charlottesville, so only about half its student population hails from western Albemarle. For more information, visit www.fieldschoolcv.net.

Todd Barnett, who wrote the musical and played the school’s owner, also writes the annual Crozet Spirit Walk. He is developing a series of four plays highlighting local history that will be reproduced every four years, with each new incoming class. While the quality of this show reflected an enormous amount of work, rehearsals were all held during the school day. “The Field School is a wonderful place,” remarked Vann Slangerup, who stole the show with his solo in “John Henry.” “We do a play every year, but this is our first musical.” After this thoroughly enjoyable performance, Crozet theater buffs should hope it is not their last!

1 COMMENT

  1. I believe that the state of VA was charged with acquiring these lands and turning them over to the Federal government for creation of the park. You may want to check on that. In short, if anyone was shorted on fair value for their properties, the state of VA may have been the primary culprit.

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