Writer Shares Immigration Story Through Music

Virginia Mika Leech was five years old when her great-great grandmother died. But the stories about the family coming from the Czech lands to settle in Fayette County, Texas, lived on. The stories have inspired a unique presentation—a musical called Heart of the Tin Trunk. Written by Virginia, the production will be performed July 30 and 31, August 6 and 7 on the Concert Stage at Festival Hill in Round Top. 

I met Virginia and her husband, Ed, at the National Polka Festival in Ennis and arranged an interview.

What is the play about?

A battered old tin trunk, similar to the one my great-great grandmother had, reveals its hidden heart through Czech family treasures. The items inside, which include a quilt, picture and wedding dress, recall storied memories of perseverance, bravery and family spirit that bring adventure, discovery and love to a young Texas girl. The story takes you from today’s graduating students to the heart of 19th century Europe, where a young Czech mother faces a terrifying decision to take her children on a dangerous journey across an ocean in search of a new life in Texas. It’s a celebration of life and family filled with new and traditional songs, energetic dances, colorful characters, romance and the courageous Czech and German immigrants who made Central Texas their home.


You grew up in Fayette County, right?

I was born and raised in La Grange. I went to UT in Austin and taught journalism and English at Richland College and the University of Texas at Dallas. Ed and I lived in Dallas for 40 years. We moved back to La Grange in 2005 and have two daughters, Kelly McGill and Dana Wills, who live in Austin. Our three grandchildren are Austin, Allison and Conner.


When did you start working on the play?

I started writing it 17 years ago. When I retired, I took a writing class and at the second class meeting we were asked for an outline of the chapters for a book.  I had always been intrigued by my great grandmother’s story, so that became the focus of the book, which evolved into a play. 


Why a musical?

Because of the Czech people’s love for music, the musical stage is a natural medium. Music has appealed to all generations throughout time. Music is like the heartbeat of a people. It is their joy, their sorrow, their history. 


It truly is a story for all of Central Texas, isn’t it?

Yes, just the talk about the musical has created excitement—in our rural area and in the cities where extended families now live. Houston and San Antonio folks like to come back to the small towns to celebrate their heritage.


Who wrote the music?

Dick Smith, composer, musician, songwriter and singer formerly of Houston is lyricist and composer. I approached some polka musicians, but they couldn’t make the time commitment needed to compose the music and work with the production. Dick is a good friend and did a fantastic job. The music is a mix of his original compositions and of traditional music that you will recognize.


Who are the musicians?

Mary Ann Hatfield from La Grange is the music director and we have one of the classic Czech musicians, George Kudelka from Flatonia on drums; Duane Wavra on bass; Jim Holmes on accordian; Bobby Walla on clarinet; Mary Ann Hatfield on piano and Bonnye Karger on keyboard. 


What message are you trying to get across?

We should take pride in who we are, where we came from and those who made it possible for today's young people to excel. I encourage today's elders to pass on their stories and traditions and remind the contemporary youth of immigrant descendants to hold on to that past and history. It is in their heritage where character, morals and ethics lay. Texas pride is made up of so many histories and cultural influences, but certainly the music, hard work, joy and friendship of the Czech and German people is legendary.


What has it meant to you?

I have relished the time reviewing the stories, the history, the personalities and then weaving the facts with a story for the stage. For Ed and I, these retirement years have meant renaissance years. The theatre experience has been totally new and invigorating to us. The talented people whose hands and hearts have made this dream possible will always be with us. 


Tickets are only $20 and I look forward to attending with my family on August 6!

For more information and to order tickets, go to http://heartofthetintrunk.com/index.html