Once upon a time there was a story. It was a good story about a band of old ladies who were identified as thieves and murderers with blood on their hands because they loved trees and possums and gray squirrels and even the poisonous copperheads that live in Overton Park more than liberty, progress, automobiles, or their fellow man.
This story wasn't some vintage campfire shocker or a cautionary bedtime yarn whispered into the ears of sleepy children. It was supposedly an honest, blow-by-blow account of real troublemakers causing big problems, as told by serious journalists in the pages of respectable broadsheets like The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis-Press Scimitar. But the story was never fair, seldom balanced, and for those who have never heard the story in full, it went something like this: To promote general prosperity and improve safety conditions for Memphis drivers, the United States Department of Transportation needed to complete a section of Interstate 40 through Overton Park's old-growth forest. That expressway would have been built if not for what was described at the time as an unrelenting misinformation campaign perpetrated against Memphis by Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, a "senseless" mob governed by "too much emotion," according to Michael Grehl, the CA's hard-boiled editor in chief.
Spoiler alert: This classic media narrative about civilization breaking down at the hands of environmentalists and uppity women ends with a "happily ever after." Anyone who dropped in on last Sunday's free Booker T. Jones concert at the Levitt Shell knows this already. Today, Overton Park is as vibrant as it was when outdoor operettas were all the rage.
And An Old Forest Fairy Tale, the giddy new one-act children's musical by Voices of the South company member Virginia Ralph, celebrates real-life activists like Anona Stoner, Sara Naill Hines, and Mary Evelyn Deupree, who, in 1971, took their case to the Supreme Court, where Citizens to Preserve Overton Park won what has become the most frequently cited case in the history of environmental law.
The one-act play debuted over Memorial Day weekend at Voices of the South's annual Children's Theater Festival and is being remounted for a two-week run at Midtown's Evergreen Theatre beginning September 14th. A post-show talk-back on September 28th reunites Charles Newman, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park's filing attorney, with 89-year-old Sunshine Snyder, the last surviving plaintiff. The discussion will also provide the audience with an opportunity to meet the playwright and to ask questions about Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, the Supreme Court decision that inspired the musical.
Ralph describes her play as a classic hero's journey and shares a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien about how fantasy stories represent a state of mind that contains not only a host of magical creatures but also trees and birds and water and stone and "mortal men, when we are enchanted." The quote helped her to imagine magical places and build bridges between her play's modern autobiographical framework and Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Citizens to Preserve Overton Park struggled against state and federal government, popular opinion, and monied opponents.
With an ethos rooted in vaudeville comedy and an eccentric, ukulele-driven score, An Old Forest Fairy Tale may be the Midtowniest show Voices of the South has ever produced. It has a lot of personal meaning for Ralph, who started the project five years ago in collaboration with her oldest daughter, Janie, and who finished writing it earlier this year as her mother went into hospice care.
"My mom would be unconscious for long periods of time and then she'd wake up and I'd be there writing," Ralph says. She describes her mother, who was not a park activist, as someone who couldn't stop herself from taking on difficult causes. "It was an excuse to sit and not move," she says of the difficult period. "I was editing and rewriting the play while sitting vigil. There was something so 'meant to be' about that."
Ralph talks through her show's closing number, letting the last words — "Take care" — roll slowly. "That's my mother," she says. "It's who she was."
Ralph also gives credit to Gloria Baxter, her former professor at the University of Memphis and a frequent collaborator. "There's really no way to overstate her influence," she says.
Even after being accepted into the graduate theater program at the U of M, Ralph often wondered why she was there. The scripts she was reading for class tended to be indoor stories about indoor people having indoor relationships. She wanted to be outside, not stuck in rehearsal. She wanted to play guitar and write stories about wild things and places of enchantment.
Although Voices of the South was originally formed by U of M grads Jenny Odle Madden and Alice Berry as a platform to adapt Southern literature to the stage, the company evolved into something resembling its current form when Baxter assembled a group of like-minded artists to help her develop narrative theater pieces based on the works of naturalist authors such as Terry Tempest Williams and Mardy Murie.
"I suddenly had an artistic direction where before I had not," Ralph says of her early days working with Baxter, Odle, Berry, Steve Swift, and Jerre Dye. The characters in An Old Forest Fairy Tale are based on all of their voices, as remembered from what seemed like a never-ending tour of the company's first hit show, The Ugly Duckling. Like most good children's theater, An Old Forest Fairy Tale recognizes that its target audience is small in stature and asks viewers to consider the meaning of size relative to things like power and ability. It does this by telling a whimsical story of an unusual little girl who grows up in the city but close to the woods and who takes care of worms and bugs and all of the other icky crawly small things that grownups might step on or ignore. She's eventually transported to a microverse, a fairyland where she meets a pair of theatrically inclined pixies, a ukulele-playing blue whale, a polar bear drummer, and Pluto, the tragic celestial body recently stripped of her planethood because she was too eccentric and too small.
Together, this ragtag band of actors and musicians improvises a light opera about an old forest — "right smack dab in the middle of a city" — that is saved from bulldozers by a handful of "old ladies in tennis shoes" who are mocked and bullied because, like Pluto, they are also small and eccentric.
The true story, while less magical, is every bit as strange and mythological.
Sunshine Snyder, who joined Citizens to Preserve Overton Park near the end of the 1960s, says she still takes exception to the "old ladies in tennis shoes" description bestowed on her and her fellow activists by the local media. "I was only 40 at the time," she quips in a telephone interview from her home in Maryland. Snyder doesn't remember being serenaded by any blue whales or wandering planets or polar bears, but she says there were periods when winning her fight seemed every bit as unlikely.
"People were afraid to let their names get out there," says Snyder, who describes her younger self as an active member of the Republican Party. "I was called a communist, a rabble-rouser, an integrationist, and everything else," she says. An entire wall of attorney Charles Newman's corner office at Burch, Porter & Johnson is taken up by vintage editorial cartoons expressing negative views of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park and their tree-hugging quest to preserve the Old Forest. The topmost image is a black-and-white line drawing of President Nixon telling Henry Kissinger that he might have to settle a transportation dispute down in Memphis. But even this mocking collection fails to provide a real sense of just how cartoonishly despised Citizens to Preserve Overton Park was in certain circles.
To drive that point home, Newman produces "Environmentalists Spilling Blood," a feature article originally printed in May 1973 in Transportation Topics, an industry periodical. He points to an underlined passage so over-the-top it might have been written by the Brothers Grimm: "Just as the rabble-rousing street mob clamored for the head of Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, so have the environmentalists who — through lengthy litigation — blocked construction of Interstate 40 here, spilled the blood of innocent victims."
That only hinted at what was to follow. The article went on to quote transportation consultant William S. Pollard, who blamed members of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park for every traffic fatality in Memphis. "They can smear the blood on their hands," Pollard said.
Jesse H. Merrell, the story's indignant author, advised the park's self-appointed protectors to memorialize their victims by tying one "blood red ribbon" around a tree for every innocent "they have martyred" while saving the park.
The ribbons, Merrell said, "could contain the names of the sacrificed victims," along with the inscription: "These people died that these trees might live."
Newman describes the struggle for the Old Forest as a kind of brinksmanship between the Department of Transportation and Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. When the Supreme Court decision forced the department to plot other routes, alternative proposals would improbably threaten churches, St. Peter's Orphanage, Rhodes College, Snowden School, community centers, businesses, and even a federal judge's house.
Even though the Old Forest's fate had yet to be determined in court, demolition crews moved forward to take down houses just west of the park. "That's when some people, including some sensible people, started to say it would be a disservice to the original homeowners not to go ahead and build [the highway]," Newman says.
Memphis wasn't unique in its struggle to protect large urban green spaces. Interstate expansion helped to facilitate the growth of suburbia, and as inner-city populations thinned, big parks were targeted as desirable routes for interstate construction, greatly reducing the need to acquire urban properties through the use of eminent domain.
"But it's a myth that everything ended with the Supreme Court decision," Newman says. "These people had another 10 or 12 years of hard fighting."
Good Day, Sunshine
Sunshine Snyder, the last surviving plantiff in the Supreme Court case Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, talks about her fight for the trees. Memphis Flyer: Did you use the park often? Sunshine Snyder: I had four children, and we all used to bicycle in Overton Park. My youngest son spent a lot of time in the Brooks, and we all took advantage of the programs. At what point did you become one of the "old ladies in tennis shoes"? It was in the 1960s. Mary Evelyn Deupree came to my door, and she was just desperate because she thought things were getting bad. It was still a very loose organization at that point, and I had the time, so I decided to help. I was active in the Republican Party at that point, so I called Dan Kuykendall, my congressman, and I called my brother, who was an attorney, and I asked them both for advice. They said the only way to stop the expressway was to take it to Judge Bailey Brown's court, but he ruled against us. I know a lot of people helped out in different ways, but the core group was always small, wasn't it? Fewer than 10 of us came together at Mary Evelyn and Bill Deupree's house. Maybe there were 12 of us. Everybody was afraid to have their name out in public, especially after filing suit, because it could end up costing them. But they needed two names for plaintiffs. Bill Deupree volunteered, and either I volunteered or my husband volunteered for me. Was there much backlash? I had a couple of threatening postcards. I turned the first one over to the postmaster, and I kept the other one that said ... I don't want to repeat it because it wasn't good.
Were they picture postcards? Yes. What was the picture? A cartoon by the cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal. I have it framed. The man wrote that he was going to Chicago, or some place, to hire a killer, and he was going to blow me up with TNT or something. That seems extreme. I wasn't really worried. A lot of people say stuff like that. The police caught him watching my house but said he was harmless. They said he lived near Sears Crosstown and was afraid if the expressway went through over there instead of through the park, he would lose his home. Was that the worst of it? When we went to Judge Brown's courtroom for the appeal, I was called all sorts of awful things, like communist, rabble rouser, an integrationist, and everything else.
"Old Forest Fairy Tale" Events
» Overton Park Hikes: Hike through Overton Park's Old Forest with a CPOP naturalist and the playwright of An Old Forest Fairy Tale. September 16th and 22nd at 10 a.m. Free. » Post-show discussion of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, the historic 1971 Supreme Court case with attorney Charles Newman, Sunshine Snyder, Jimmy Ogle, and Virginia Ralph. Friday, September 28th, Evergreen Theatre, 1705 Poplar. » Voices of the South playwriting workshops that combine creative writing with simple staging techniques. All ages: Sunday, September 16th, 2 p.m.; girls only (ages 10-14): Sunday, September 23rd, 2 p.m. Evergreen Theatre, 1705 Poplar. Reservations: 726-0800.