In 1972, Nebraska-born Ruth Morgan Smith handed her daughter-in-law Vivan "a little package" that she'd kept hidden away for many years. It was a personal journal of her lifeon the Nebraska plains in the '30s, written "on the backs of old envelopes, scraps of paper, bits of notebooks -- a random assortment of papers. Ruth said 'I want you to do something with this.' "
Vivan Smith, a writer and teacher specializing in creative usesof drama, spent many years doing something with it and the resulting work, a dramatic reading with music titled "Look Up at the Hawks: A Nebraska Dust Bowl Diary" will be performed Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery as part of its "Portraits in Motion" series. Ruth Morgan Smith, who died in 1978 at the age of 84, was one of 12 children and lived all her life in rural Nebraska. "She was writing her journal as it was happening to her, not looking back," says Smith. "She wrote clearly and simply, a bit like Willa Cather, who lived near her on the Republican River. She also wrote about her own mother's memories" of being a pioneer family in the 1800s, "what it was like going across the prairies and the things she left behind."
The play is structured as vignettes shared by Vivian Smith and her own daughter, Debi Smith, a Washington singer and songwriter. "Debi hadn't known Ruth well because of the separation by space, but she read it and there were tears in her eyes. She's written a number of songs, and we read back and forth with the songs interspersed."
Connected through the talents of three generations, "Look Up at the Hawks" is a timely companion to the Portrait Gallery's current exhibition, "FDR: The Early Years." Performances on Saturday are at 1:30 and 3 p.m., with an open rehearsal on Friday at 2 p.m. The show is free, but reservations are necessary (357-2920).