You can have a tremendously moving theater experience seeing “Coal Country,” the strongly performed play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen exposing the devastating 2010 West Virginia mine disaster from the viewpoint of relatives of the 29 men who died. There is original music by Steve Earle, who also performs, and Blank directs the play in a manner that brings out the passion and impact of the event at the Upper Big Branch mine. Authenticity is firmly established in the wake of interviews that were done with families involved.
(Although I have never mined a lump of coal, seeing “Coal Country” triggered a slice of nostalgia for me---just a tiny personal footnote in the shadow of the monumental story being dramatized. More about that later.)
The saga begins with Earle on guitar playing and singing the union song “John Henry” and other numbers, as well as providing an introductory narration. By setting the musical and verbal tone, Earle quickly creates coal country atmosphere with traditions traced to the days when the United Mine Workers union was a powerful force that protected the rights of workers, generations of whom earned their livelihood in the dangerous underground work.
Soon the stage becomes a courtroom in which company honcho Don Blankenship is on trial under charges of responsibility for the disaster. That scene segues into the individual portraits of those who perished.
The strength of the production comes from the stalwart performances depicting surviving characters and the family relationships they describe. The cast members tell one story after another of personal loss and the shock of learning what happened and the realization that loved ones will never be seen alive again. Each monologue packs great force, and some statements can bring a viewer to tears. Sometimes here is an incessant rhythm in the grieving, as with the foot-stomping accompanying the dialogue in one section.
Ezra Knight as Roosevelt recalls his father. Deirdre Madigan as Judy mourns the loss of her brother. Especially poignant is Mary Bacon as Patti, who tells us of her loving relationship that because of the disaster only lasted some four years but will forever remain as the best and most memorable years of her life. Others in the superb cast include Thomas Kopache, Michael Laurence, Michael Gaston, Amelia Campbell and Melinda Tanner as the stern Judge Berger.
The play is basically an indictment of the crime committed and the light sentence administered by the judge in an eventual second courtroom scene. After all that has gone on we and the survivors learn that defendant Blankenship is found guilty on a minor charge and gets off with a one-year sentence. The decision triggers our outrage as well as those in the courtroom.
The cumulative power of “Coal Country” places the work firmly among other dramas of injustice in the world. Blank and Jensen, who are married, also wrote the impressive play “The Exonerated,” about innocent people sent to death row.
Regarding my aforementioned personal note: My first job after journalism school was with the Associated Press in West Virginia, where stories about the coal mines were staples long before the explosion described in “Coal Country.” Later, I did publicity for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in the very building that is now the Public Theater. My office was on the second floor. Every time I visit the theater memories of my days there return. (I also picketed for Public Theater founder Joseph Papp’s right to stage Shakespeare in Central Park despite the opposition by then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.) In seeing “Coal Country” there is also the recollection of my having been a member of the United Mine Workers--for a few weeks.
Along with other HIAS employees, I was a social worker member of the then called Department Store and Warehouse Union. The HIAS executives regarded that union as too militant and left-wing and tried to bring in the AFL-CIO instead. As a counter-punch, we succeeded in joining the United Mine Workers. Newsweek magazine ran a story about the oddity of social workers in the mining union. HIAS executives feared having to sit down and negotiate with the high-profile mine leader John L. Lewis.
Alas, the gambit only worked for a short time, and management ultimately did get the AFL-CIO to replace the more militant union. Addendum: Later, as an adjunct professor at New York University I became a member of the United Auto Workers union covering university adjuncts. All as a proud union member, but never having had to mine coal or build an automobile.
Undoubtedly I would have been deeply moved by the powerful play “Coal Country” and the excellence of the Public Theater production without this personal background intrusion. But I thought this little footnote might be of reader interest. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed March 7. 2020.