On Belonging and the Dust Bowl

Dust can't kill him!
Dust can't kill him! // Kamaria Greenfield

According to Leo Tolstoy, all great literature is one of two stories: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. “Dust Can’t Kill Me,” an original musical production with book written by Abigail Carney ’15 and folk-country score by Elliah Heifetz ’15, is both. It even includes a third type of story: people trying and failing to be happy with stasis. Like any good musical, the show is laden with great songs and fun choreography, but the play is dark and a bit spooky. And although firmly rooted in a specific moment in America’s past, the Dust Bowl, it delivers commentary on the human experience that feels relevant to our own time.

“Dust Can’t Kill Me” begins with the seven-person cast frozen in dim light on the stage, familiar black-and-white photos of Depression-era suffering flashing in the background.

The set is spare and evocative of lean times: A wooden windmill stands tall against a crinkly white backdrop, wooden crates are scattered across the stage and an elegant mahogany dining chair reminds us that before the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Americans were living large. Dust has covered those days, but the memory of better times lingers.

A spotlight shines on Paul Hinkes ’15, playing Jack Omaha, a drifter who serves as the play’s narrator, travelling the region performing folk songs. “These were Biblical times,” Omaha says, priming the audience for the show’s supernatural elements before introducing the main characters: sisters Angelina (Lily Shoretz ’16) and Lily (Alyssa Miller ’16), twin brothers Abraham (Chris Camp ’16) and Birch (Nathan Kohrman ’15), an outlaw named Wesley (Jamie Bogyo ’15) and himself, going by the name of Montgomery for most of the play. Angelina is husbandless, pregnant and fearful for the future, while Lily is a hardworking dreamer who loves her sister but longs to leave the farm. Birch and Abraham fought in World War I, worked in a steel factory, owned a peanut farm that eventually failed, rode the rails and opened another farm, which also failed. Now they mostly sit around singing about the virtues of bachelorhood.

And then the stranger comes to town. Kendrick Kirk ’16 is fantastically creepy as The Prophet, a Mansonesque character dressed in dirty white pants, an orange jacket and shiny loafers. With greasy hair and a leering grin, he resembles a particularly unwholesome Bible salesman — but instead of little orange New Testaments, The Prophet bears the promise of “a place with no hunger and no pain.” The characters all so down on their luck and eager to escape from their dusty surroundings that they agree to follow his instructions to arrive at paradise through the desert.

But inside the desert, The Prophet is nowhere to be found. Traveling in pairs, the explorers are sweaty, lost and doubtful of the existence of the paradise. After meeting as instructed at “the Larkspur,” which turns out to be a brothel and honky-tonk bar, they give up on finding the promised land and decide to have a round of drinks. No one seems too torn up about another crushed dream, an excuse to take a shot. Then Wesley arrives, insisting that they ought to continue. In one of the most show-stopping numbers of the play, “Oh, Raphael,” the entire cast calls on the Catholic saint known for helping travelers through dangerous journeys, and the group decides to continue the journey.

Every actor but Kendrick, who doesn’t have a singing part, is in an a cappella group, and each voice is distinctly beautiful. Heifetz’s lyrics are poetic and atmospheric, with touches of humor to lighten the mood. The music itself, performed live by two violinists, a cellist, a guitarist, a keyboardist and a bassist, is impressively diverse. “Adeline,” sung by Angelina to her unborn child, is soft and haunting, while “Talkin’ Twin Bachelor Blues,” performed by Montgomery, Abraham and Birch, is bouncy, energetic and fun. The unity of plot and musical numbers stems from the fully collaborative nature of the project; while Carney was writing the book last summer, she’d email pages to Heifetz so that he could write the songs.

We find the play’s third story in the second act. Here, there are no strangers, no journeys — only confusion and doubt about whether life itself is even worth fighting for. It is this story that is the most relatable and, given our tendency to romanticize this era and mentally distance ourselves from it, the most surprising. “Dust Can’t Kill Me” is a ghost story, an atmospheric folk tale, a magic realist reimagining of the past. But the characters and their psychological struggles feel literally true. We won’t all go on epic journeys or be visited by mysterious strangers. But sooner or later, we’ll all wonder whether we are where we belong. “Dust Can’t Kill Me” proves that this story, so universal that it often goes unconsidered, is as dramatic and moving as any other.

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