rtb was gifted with a subscription to The Public Theater and she was kind enough to ask me to join her to see Coal Country at the Anspacher Theater since, as she put it, Steve Earle is my bae.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen wrote this play based on real-life accounts by survivors and family members of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on April 5, 2010. Jessica Blank directed the show and Steve Earle, who wrote the music, is a Greek chorus with acoustic guitar and banjo, commenting on the action on stage with song. Sometimes the actors sing along with him but he started solo. There is a beautiful duet towards the end of the show with Mary Bacon (Patti) singing about her fiancé Greg, who died in the explosion (“If I Could See Your Face Again”).
The other characters are Judge Berger (Melinda Tanner), who presided at the trial of Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, who was only convicted of a misdemeanor conspiring to willfully violate safety standards despite the death of 29 (out of 31) miners; Gary (Thomas Kopache), whose son was killed; Tommy (Michael Laurence), who lost a son, brother, and nephew; Goose (Michael Gaston), who had spent his life in the mine and warned them there was going to be an explosion; Goose’s wife Mindi (Amelia Campbell); Roosevelt (Ezra Knight), who lost his father; and Judy (Deirdre Madigan), who lost her brother. Gary had worked in the mines, Tommy worked alongside his relatives, and Roosevelt worked the shift after his father’s.
If you watch TV as much as I do, you will immediately recognize Kopache, Gaston, and Madigan from various TV shows.
At the top, Earle mentioned various labor folk heroes, some of whom did not get a reaction from the audience, and then sang “John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man.” A couple of the other songs performed (which will be on his new album) were “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” and “Time is Never on Our Side.” “Union, God and Country” was a singalong, not just with the actors but with the audience. There was music and lyrics in our songbooks and Earle told us if we did not sing along then they would think we were scabs.
Before the show started there was American roots music being played over the sound system and as we left, they played Earle songs. The stage was simple (scenic design by Richard Hoover) – wooden floor and going up the wall between the two columns with some of the wood on the wall broken off. Earle sat in front of one of the columns throughout the show and either watched the action, sang, or sometimes joined the action. The actors carried on and off stage four benches that were used various ways – sometimes even as percussion. Feet stomping was another percussive element.
As the characters started talking about the day of the explosion and what led up to it and what happened just before it, their voices quickened and they were almost talking on top of each other as one person barely took a breath before the next person spoke. There was a roaring sound in the background and you could almost feel and see the explosion coming.
The lighting by David Lander was simple but effective. And the same for the sound design by Darron L West. Jessica Jahn dressed the actors in everyday clothes.
Blank and Jensen along with Earle and the actors did a brilliant job of taking you to a place and time that I am certainly not familiar with and making it feel like I was there listening to their stories.
As we left, we saw a photo of the UBB memorial for the miners who were killed.
Right now, I do not know what is going to happen with off-Broadway shows, but you should go see this before the run ends.
By Carene Lydia Lopez