Black Stories Black Voices, an initiative of the Barter Theatre, shines light on stories from Appalachia

Terrance Jackson at the Barter’s Shine.

Black Stories Black Voices, an initiative of the Barter Theatre, shines light on stories from Appalachia
April 26
10:23 2023

By Judie Holcomb-Pack

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the reaction to the 2020 murder of George Floyd has led to positive social change by grassroots campaigns, as well as corporate leaders developing strategies for justice and equality. One in particular that grew out of the response to BLM is Black Stories Black Voices, an initiative of the historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia.

The state’s oldest theatre, the Barter is celebrating its 90th year. It sits on West Main Street in the quaint Southwestern Virginia town of Abingdon, across the street from the acclaimed Martha Washington Inn & Spa, known simply as “The Martha.”

The staff of the Barter Theatre had been discussing for some time how to bring more diversity to its audience, as well as more playwrights of color for their productions. Terrance Jackson, director of outreach and the Black Stories Black Voices (BSBV) initiative, as well as a Barter actor himself, said, “We did a ton of research trying to collect stories from the (Black) community.”

For people who may be unfamiliar with Appalachia, their first thought may be about white coal miners. However, there are many African American communities in Appalachia. Jackson said the Barter’s production called Shine “came from people telling us their stories.”

Jackson became involved in the Black Stories Black Voices initiative in 2022. He said that for 20 years the Barter has held the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights featuring stories with a connection to Appalachia or written by playwrights with an Appalachian connection. Playwrights submit their scripts and six are selected to be stage-read over the festival weekend. They endeavor to include at least one from an African American playwright or with a Black Appalachian theme. The plays are read by actors on stage at the Barter’s smaller stage, Smith Stage, and are followed by a panel discussion by regional theatre professionals. Thanks to sponsors, all the plays are free and open to the public. The event, held annually around the end of February, usually sells out.

To continue with the focus on Black Stories Black Voices, the Barter has a monologue competition among Black writers with the six winning monologues read at the end of the festival, called Shine. Last year Quinten Cockrell, a professor at Troy University in Alabama, led a free Zoom monologue writing workshop prior to the competition.

Asked about the response to Shine and BSBV, Jackson said, “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People have been really, really excited.” And the response has blossomed in an unexpected way, he added.

“One person was so inspired (after attending Shine) that she wrote a winning monologue and now is on our board,” said Jackson.

The Barter is slowly seeing more diversity in their audiences, reported Jackson. “We’re seeing more Black and brown people” as they continue to build relationships throughout the community and region. He emphasized “Theatre is for everybody,” a sentiment also expressed by the National Black Theatre Festival, which will return to Winston-Salem in 2024.

The deadline for submissions for the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights is May 1, 2023. Full details are on their website at

The next production in BSBV is “Skeleton Crew” by Dominque Morisseau, one of the top Black playwrights in the country. The play was just on Broadway and is a powerful story about the tough choices the characters must make when the factory where they have been working their entire lives is shut down. When the coal industry began to leave Appalachia, Black coal miners faced a similar situation. Jackson and the cast will have a Q&A after the production on May 20, along with historian Ron Carson from the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia. 

Abingdon, Virginia, is just off I-81, about two hours and 15 minutes from Winston-Salem. It’s a perfect day trip for an afternoon show or a weekend getaway where you can explore historic Abingdon and enjoy its many fine restaurants and breweries. Another 20 minutes up the road is Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, and the location of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, where their new exhibit, “I’ve Endured: Women in Old-Time Music,” is on display until December 31.

For more information about the Barter, go to

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