125 years after her passing, an unlikely candidate has become a champion for women's rights as the subject of a new play that bears her name: my great-great-great grandmother, "Sally McCoy." From a strictly historical perspective, Sarah “Sally” McCoy might be considered of little consequence, had it not been for her family's role in the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. A farmer's wife, mother of 17 children, with little education and no professional skills, she could be said to be an "ordinary" woman who found herself caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Yet, there was undeniably more to her character than the written record may bear out. She was a woman of unrelenting faith, unfailing fortitude and a quiet bravery who dared to take on the "Devil" alone.
For nearly 150 years, the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud has captured the American imagination. From music to stage to television to films, the story of the two families' strife has been rendered and interpreted in nearly every form of entertainment imaginable. Remarkably, the story has always been told from the vantage point of the two male adversaries, "Devil Anse" Hatfield and "Ol' Randall" McCoy. In 2017, however, playwright Alice Stanley set out to present a unique take on feud events, one that is extraordinarily challenging and relevant to contemporary audiences. For the first time in history, the feud is examined from a woman's point of view.
"Sally McCoy" takes place on the eve of the pending execution of the three McCoy boys for their attack on Ellison Hatfield, brother of "Devil Anse." In a desperate bid to save the lives of her sons, Sally crosses the river into West Virginia alone in the dead of night to confront the most powerful man in the Tug Valley, "Devil Anse" Hatfield. In the course of a terse, harrowing dialogue between the two, Sally's position as a woman in 1880’s Appalachia serves as a metaphor for the role of women in society today.
The play first came to my attention after a successful run at Baltimore's Cohesion Theatre elicited many favorable reviews in the media. I reached out to the author, Alice Stanley, who was kind enough to email me a copy of her play. I discovered that the award-winning script was worthy of the accolades it had received. Alice’s play was smartly written. Her characters were well-drawn and their engaging dialogues were unflinching in examining difficult sociological issues.
In May, 2018, I was contacted by Megan Hamilton, Education Director for the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. and invited to participate in their new production of the play.
On August 17, I had the opportunity to meet with the talented cast of "Sally McCoy," early in their preparation period for the piece. Director Susanne Boulle and the troupe (Tricia Matthews, Michael Poisson, Nicholas Piper, Shaan Sharma, Rusty Allen and stage manager Sara Douglas) were exceedingly kind in their reception of me. All seemed genuinely eager to ascertain the humanity of the characters they were portraying.
On the night of October 6th, I was joined by family members Bob Scott and Reo and Billy Hatfield, for a reception for theater donors, followed by a performance of the play. Following the play, we joined the cast and the director for an interactive panel discussion with the audience. The lively discussion spanned a full spectrum of topics from stolen pigs to the role of gender in society.
Also in the audience that night was a surprise guest, Gene McCoy from Charlotte, NC, a cousin I had never met before. I had met his daughter, Lisa Pendergrass and her family for the first time during the 2018 "Christmas in July" event in West Jefferson, NC. Lisa had hoped to bring her parents up for the show in Abingdon if they felt up to it. Fortunately for me, Gene was able to make the trip that night and was seated in the second row. Gene is likely the oldest living “feud” descendant, at least within my branch of the McCoy family tree. He is the first cousin of my grandfather, Eugene, both from the Samuel McCoy (son of Randolph and Sarah) line. It truly was an honor to meet him.
Richard Rose, the longtime Artistic Director for the Barter and his entire staff were particularly gracious and accommodating to me and my extended Hatfield-McCoy family. I am especially grateful for the dignity afforded the family members portrayed in "Sally McCoy." While the tone of the piece is necessarily bleak, glimmers of humanity shine through the darkness. The character of Sally McCoy speaks out over generations, compelling us to consider how little human behavior has changed over time. Her story stands a testimony to the effectiveness of a woman's selfless determination to ensure the survival of her family. After all the hardships that she and her family suffered, five generations later, her family endures. "Sally McCoy" was an extraordinary "ordinary" woman indeed.