by Carol di Tosti . . .
When money and wealth become more important than the lives of others, that is the time to write a play with powerful, sonorous music. Oh, not to uplift the CEOs who collect the millions like Don Blankenship of Massey-owned Performance Coal Company. No. The play should uplift and memorialize the ones who die because of that CEO’s greed, selfishness and refusal to accept accountability for what many have called murder. Above all the play must repudiate the wealthy’s Puritan assertions that money and power make right. They don’t. Not now, not ever.
Coal Country is a docu-drama with incredibly relevant themes for us today. The riveting, masterful work written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle in a fabulous encore presentation by Audible and the Public Theater seems more impactful each time it is presented. We can never get enough of this exceptionally performed, shining work which runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre until April 17.
Though the worst of human nature asserts its primacy, poignant, moving stories like those in Coal Country are timeless in revealing that love, despite tragedy, culturally works us toward enlightenment. The voices of those who have been wrongfully snuffed out can resonate with meaning. This is especially so when fine artists like Blank, Jensen, Earle and superb performers affect those voices to channel the great moral imperative. What is good, what is true, what is valuable is never lost. It lives on.
The themes which the playwrights and songwriter ring out in Coal Country focus on the devastating catastrophe known as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, which cost 29 West Virginians their lives. Through family eye-witness accounts cobbled together in a tapestry of poetic beauty, vitality and grace, we learn the facts about the huge machine that operated over-capacity 24/7 on the long wall, shearing off the finest, most valuable coal so Blakenship could get his contract percentage of the mine’s earnings of $650,000 a day.
We learn through the accounts of union miners like Tommy (Michael Laurence), Gary (Thomas Kopache), and “Goose” (Joe Jung), how and why government inspectors never found the broken systems that allowed low oxygen levels to increase the build-up of methane gasses and thick coal dust that caused the massive explosion. As the experienced miners relate how the broken sprinklers ineffectively doused the sparks created in machine operations that ignited the coal dust and methane behind the long wall, the final picture of egregious negligence and rapacious lust for money clarifies in the blood of innocents merged with the blood of family bonds.
Tommy, Laurence and Gary discuss how the power of the union to protect and respect the miners’ rights in the past has been subverted by the CEO and company, and government deregulation. The owners who bought the mine hired a large percentage of non-union men—workers who didn’t dare “speak up,” to government inspectors and the FBI about extremely unsafe conditions in the mine. They feared reprisals. The question of payoffs arises and dead-ends. We learn how those miners who did “say something” were warned and ignored. Miners were rendered voiceless against the inevitability of their deaths because Blankenship was on a mission. No one was going to stop him.
As families identify bodies on blankets on the gravel, some collapse. Roosevelt (Ezra Knight) who identifies his father, who appears to be “asleep,” remains calm until his mother comes. They weep together. As others express outrage, the families of four missing men wait to hear whether or not their loved ones cheated death. Finally, the wait is over. None make it out. Tommy, who loses his son, his nephew and his father, waits to spill the news, overcome with pain.
Judy (Deidre Madigan), a doctor who lost her brother in the catastrophe, rides a roller coaster of emotional expectation. First, she believes her brother died. Then she believes he found refuge. Then, all is finality. She describes that she feels she is an outsider because of her socioeconomic status. But emotion and love transcend economics—she is one of them. Her brother is dead and though the medical examiner tells her not to, she insists on seeing his remains. It is ironic that even her medical background does not prepare her for what the mine did to him. It is beyond calculation. In pieces, her brother is without human form.
One by one, seven family members tell their story of a simple, satisfying life prior to the catastrophe in a community that mined for generations. Indeed, the mountain supported and nurtured them until it was bought over by Massey Energy and a new CEO came to town. We learn of the loving relationships between Mindi (Amelia Campbell) and Goose; and Patti (Mary Bacon) and Big Greg who dies leaving Little Greg traumatized by the loss of his dad and Patti when he is taken away from her. And interspersed with their stories, Steve Earle’s country ballads lyrical and poignant, drive home the resonance of their love and remembrances of their dear ones. They live in his songs and echo in the actors’ mesmerizing performances.
Blank and Jensen (the husband-wife team who created The Exonerated), choose to present this dynamic piece as a flashback after Earle (playing guitar)opens with two songs that set the themes: “John Henry,” and “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Cleverly, the action begins in the courtroom at the end of Don Blakenship’s trial as Judge Berger (Kym Gomes), states they cannot read their “Victim Impact Statements.” What family could never speak in court, they relate to the court of public opinion (the audience who sees this play).
The flashback comes full circle back to the court, so the audience hears Blankenship only gets one year in jail and a fine of $250,000. Arrogantly, Blankenship uses that money to run television ads and create pamphlets in which he characterizes himself as the victim of the government and as a “political prisoner.” Nevertheless, in final, moving encomiums, each family member details how they remember their loved ones, who live on in their hearts and in this production which has called out to music the names of all who died in the UBB mine explosion.
With minimalist but trenchant symbolic Scenic Design (Richard Hoover), effective Lighting Design (David Lander), Sound Design (Darron L West) and Costume Design (Jessica Jahn), Coal Country is an amazing revival. It is profound and memorable in scope and power. Don’t miss it this time around.
Coal Country. Through April 17 at The Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, Greenwich Village, NYC) www.coalcountrymusical.com
For those who will not be able to attend Coal Country in person, a recording of the production is available at Audible.com
Photos: Joan Marcus