RFK in EKY The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project: Recreating Robert Kennedy's two-day, 200 mile
RFK in EKY: The Project
About the Project Tour Sites: 1968 & 2004 The 2004 Performance Artists and Community RFK in EKY's Ongoing Work
Project Description and History // About the Project
Project Description & History · John Malpede · Reconsidering the War on Poverty · About RFK's 1968 Tour ·
"Be it Remembered" - Pages from the original transcripts
 · Announcement Press Conference

RFK in EKY, The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project, is a series of public conversations and activities centered around the real-time, site-specific intermedia performance that recreated, on September 9th and 10th 2004, Robert Kennedy’s two-day, 200 mile “poverty tour” of southeastern Kentucky in 1968.

This webpage represents our attempt to capture both the essence and detail of the project – the material here reflects the four year development process, the performance itself, the ideas explored in a variety of formats, and the different directions the project is now heading . . . Like the reenactment itself, there are occasional points where the past and the present overlap, compete in some ways – we’ve learned to live with them by recognizing the ways they inform and challenge each other. As a point of reference, the performance is spoken of in the past tense, the project as a whole in the present – it is ongoing, and continues to find new ideas for evolving its exploration . . .

The project provides an opportunity to revisit the essential and still pertinent questions raised in Kennedy’s original visit (2004 being, like 1968, a pivotal election year): on the representation of marginalized populations in the national consciousness; the role of government in maintaining a quality-of-life safety net, and fostering sustainable economic development, educational and vocational advancement; ways to stem the out-migration of rural young people and the loss of natural resources; and the priorities of a government administration engaged in a protracted war. RFK in EKY, like Kennedy and those who created his tour, recognizes these questions are part of an important national dialogue for which Appalachia is only one of many possible settings.

Like the original tour, RFK in EKY focuses attention on the indigenous expertise and alternative visions of Appalachia. The performance re-enacted, with an all-local cast (of hundreds), the most significant events of Kennedy’s 1968 visit in order to hold an historical mirror to present day issues and ideas. The 48 hour performance recreated all aspects of Kennedy’s tour, including two official hearings of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty (held at Vortex and Fleming-Neon), roadside visits with individual families, walking tours of small communities and strip mine sites, stops at one-room schoolhouses, and speeches at courthouses and colleges. A series of contextualizing activities took place preceding the recreation, and surrounded the two-day performance itself. They will continue, in new forms, as the project evolves. These events range from the analytical to the deeply personal and use art as the occasion for creating public meeting space in rural communities.

These pages present the events prior to and during the performance: speakers such as Peter Edelman and Loyal Jones address the history and strategies of the “war on poverty” as it played out in central Appalachia, and the legacy of the programs’ spirit and ideas. Head Start workers focus attention on the last intact remnant of the “war on poverty” idea of “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in determining the direction of programming meant to help them. Artists from the project, including Harrell Fletcher, present an exhibition of memorabilia and commemorative artifacts gathered during its four year development process, and artists within the project conduct a public discussion of the integrated arts approach and the many pitfalls that led to the performance.

Initiated and led by the artist John Malpede, RFK in EKY is a project of Appalshop, Inc. Malpede, now in-residence at Appalshop, began developing the notion of recreating Kennedy’s visit during the American Festival Project sponsored Artist and Community Gathering in 2000, and evolved it into its present form during extended visits over the subsequent three years.

John Malpede is a distinguished, genre-bending performance artist and theater director whose solo pieces “Inappropriate Laughing Responses” and “Get” have been performed throughout the US. Over the past three years Malpede has been featured in five video works in Bill Viola’s series, “The Passion,” including “Quintet of the Astonished,” in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Currently, Malpede is performing a one-hour monologue as Antonin Artaud in director Peter Sellar’s “Artaud/Jordan.” The piece has toured six European cities and is now touring the US.

In 1985 Malpede formed the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), the first performance group in the nation comprised entirely of homeless and formerly homeless people. LAPD’s current touring project, “Agents and Assets,” originally produced in 2001, recreates a US House of Representatives hearing on the importation of drugs into the country by Nicaraguan Contras with CIA complicity. 

The creative process of “Agents and Assets” merges experiential knowledge with contextual information, allowing both performers and audience a deeper understanding of the social and political forces that shape their lives. This model, mixing lived experience and context, is the basic groundwork for RFK in EKY. Local citizens, some of whom saw Kennedy as schoolchildren in 1968, will play national figures; children will play their parents; today’s political and community leaders will play their past counterparts. The construction of memory and commemoration is one context; environmental sacrifice and economic self-determination another; federal policy promises and failures yet another – the project exists to reveal both the imbalances inherent in our society and the extraordinary work and workers attempting to expose and rectify them.

RFK in EKY not only recreates an historic moment, it holds a mirror to it and asks people to join the conversations, exploring their hopes and analyzing what’s true in our relationships to government, community, and each other. Like RFK himself, the project hopes to give people the opportunity and the courage to listen, speak, and act as free citizens in a true democracy.

NEXT: John Malpede: Art and Citizenship