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Actress-singer Martha Redbone stars in 'Bone Hill' on Sunday

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FARMINGTON — Anyone who has spent time digging around in their family history probably understands it's not unusual to uncover a secret or two.

That was certainly the case for singer Martha Redbone in 2015 when she began her research for what would become "Bone Hill," a musical-dramatic production she created with her husband and creative partner, pianist Aaron Whitby. "Bone Hill" is based on Redbone's family's past in its longtime home in the coal-mining country of Harlan County in southeast Kentucky.

"I absolutely did," Redbone said Tuesday, just days before she was scheduled to arrive in the Four Corners for a performance of the production this weekend at San Juan College. "I went through all our family stories, and one of the biggest reveals is something I can't tell you because it would give away the story (of the play)."

Redbone's family history certainly seems ripe for intrigue. She is of Cherokee, Choctaw, African-American and European descent, and she split her childhood between Appalachia and Brooklyn, absorbing a mix of influences that continues to inform her music today. Redbone loves rhythm-and-blues, but her career largely is focused on the rootsy folk and mountain music she was exposed to in Kentucky.

"Being Native American and African-American is such a topic of conversation," she said. "They're both such marginalized groups of people that you're an activist just by birth. I think that's reflected in my decision of being a grassroots artist and being completely independent to choose my own projects."

"Bone Hill" features a cast of eight actors/musicians. The story reflects the experiences of Redbone's family in Appalachia, spanning four generations and exploring their deep ties to the land through a series of vignettes.

Redbone said she was inspired to write it when she became a mother and felt compelled to start passing along her family stories to her child. Though her family history is complicated, she believed "Bone Hill" offers a story that is easy to relate to.

"Because it's such a personal story, it translates a lot easier," she said.

Redbone said she has been gratified by the response she has received to "Bone Hill," especially in the case of audience members who felt compelled to dive into their own family lineage after seeing it.

"That's what you would hope it would do – resonate," she said.

The surprise Redmond uncovered in her research relates to how and why her family returned to Kentucky in the 1930s after leaving the area in the 1800s on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation by the American government of the Cherokee, Choctaw and other Native peoples from the southeast United States to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma.

Redmond said the information she uncovered changed her perspective on her past, even in a family with a strong tradition of oral storytelling.

"It became a very cathartic experience for me because it was something I never knew," she said. "Now, I understand everything. This had always been a question in our family."

The experience reconnected her with her Native lineage, something she said that often is overlooked by others because of her African-American heritage, referencing how the so-called "one-drop rule" of racial classification that was prevalent in parts of America in the 20th century lingers. It held that any person of even marginal black lineage ("one drop of blood") was to be classified as black, no matter their other racial makeup.

"Everything else you are doesn't count," she said, describing that type of thinking. "But that doesn't work when your mom is Native," Redbone said, explaining how her mother refused to allow her daughter to minimize that part of her background. "She taught me, "Do not participate in the genocide of your own people. Don't marginalize us. Don't help make us invisible.' I'm trying to do that (with 'Bone Hill') and honor her words."

Redbone said she feels that connection every time she steps on to the stage to perform the play.

"I don't want to sound like a New Age hippie, but I feel like I have my ancestors around me, protecting me in my living room," she said. "Every time I share it, I feel the importance of it."

"Bone Hill" will be presented at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Henderson Fine Arts Center Performance Center on the San Juan College campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for students, $18 for seniors and $15 for children 12 and younger at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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