By Holli Harms
In April 2010 in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia there was a coal dust explosion so catastrophic it was felt for miles. Twenty-nine miners were killed. Coal Country, now in its World Premiere at The Public Theater, tells the stories of six of the families whose loved ones were killed that day and how they struggled through the pain, and ultimately the lawsuit against the company that owned the mine, Massey Energy, whose negligence and greed had them purposefully throwing a blind eye to problems in the mine. Problems that eventually escalated into twenty-nine men dead.
This is a documentary play composed by the same team who brought us The Exonerated. Here, they have added the music of the coal and the miners who drag it out of the ground. These are original songs created by singer, songwriter and American treasure Steve Earle who also performs them in the evening.
The play opens with Earle on stage, just him and his guitar. We are introduced to each of the family members as they tell us about mining, about that fateful April day, what a body looks like that has been ripped apart, and what their hearts feel like that have been ripped open. These are the actual family member’s words, and when you hear those words, you realize no matter where you grew up, where you reside, we all, all of us have an eloquent way of speaking, of describing, of resilience in the face of death, hurt and anger. In our hearts, we are all poets. Their words are embodied by this exquisite ensemble so perfectly it doesn’t feel like you’re watching acting, but instead the real individuals there before you telling their truths.
This is also the story of how mining corporations, again and again, cut corners for money and treat their workers like the dirt they dig into.
With music and words and movement the stories of these six amazing families are told with clarity and are so strong they are palpable. After leaving the theater, I now know them.
The simplicity of the bare stage with just the performers talking to us and to one another is gorgeous and all that is truly needed. But the staging of benches, moving them from here to there and using them as the “work” of the mine feels clunky, out of place, and not at all necessary. Had it been used minimally it would not have been so intrusive. But that is a minor caveat in a perfect machine. It was an honor to sit and be a witness to their stories told by some of our best actors.
You have until April 5th to get your ticket to Coal Country at The Public, please don’t hesitate.
COAL COUNTRY, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, with original music by Steve Earle, and direction by Jessica Blank.
Production: Scenic Design by Richard Hoover, Costume Design by Jessica Jahn, Lighting Design by David Lander, Sound Design by Darron L West, Music Director Steve Earle, Movement Director Adesola Osakalumi, Production Stage Manager Janelle Caso
The Public’s Anspacher Theater 425 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003
Run Time: 90 minutes without intermission