Remembering “Red Fox” In Life and Onstage

There are still many old people around home who remember these two trials, some whose families were deeply involved in them. And the way these folks tell the story is often very different from the history books, yet closer to those forgotten documents.

Ours is such a story, a story about memory – memory and the Cumberland Mountains where Virginia and Kentucky back up to one another, where the Cumberland Mountain itself forms a natural boundary between them for a hundred and ten miles. The photographs that we use [in the play] were all taken and this story all happened along this mountain in the 1880s and 1890s.

– from a 1982 playbill for Red Fox/Second Hangin’

 

Red Fox/Second Hangin’ is Roadside Theater’s first full-length play. Written in 1976 from both oral histories and primary source documents, it tells the story of M.B. “Doc” Taylor – the Red Fox of the Cumberlands – who was hanged 125 years ago this October for the ambush murder of moonshiner Iry Mullins and his gang in Wise County, Virginia, in 1893.  

The play’s script and staging were adapted from history books, old newspaper accounts, heretofore lost court records, and, most importantly, from conversations with older residents of the area who remembered the time and its vivid characters. When the playwrights (fledgling Roadsiders Don Baker and Dudley Cocke) began their research, they expected that the tales told by local folks would be fanciful, colorful, and entertaining, but not historically accurate. When comparing Wise County Courthouse records of trials with stories that had been passed down orally within families, however, the playwrights found that fact and folklore corroborated each other. Meanwhile, the “official” history – written by urban industrialists who had established extractive economies in the region in the late 19th century – was proven to be inaccurate.

When Roadside Theater began performances of Red Fox/Second Hangin’, members of the community came to see if the playwrights had uncovered any new information about the murders and hangings which were still a topic of lively speculation. Audience members thought nothing about interrupting performers Don Baker, Gary Slemp, and Frankie Taylor to share choice details or rumors they knew. In this way, the script developed in its first year as local folks came, not as spectators, but to bear witness to their own cultural identity.

Red Fox/Second Hangin’ toured locally and, eventually, nationally from the late 1970s (when it premiered off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club) to 1989.

Appalshop/Roadside Theater’s 90-minute video of Red Fox/Second Hangin’ was taped in 1982 at a live performance in Carcassonne, Kentucky, and was broadcast nationally on PBS stations. The multimedia production includes a filmed dramatic re-enactment of the ambush on Iry Mullins and his gang; it was produced by Dudley Cocke, directed by Don Baker, and edited by Anne Lewis.

To purchase Red Fox/Second Hangin’ on DVD, visit our Media store.

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