Six years after the explosion that killed 29 coal miners in West Virginia, family members and co-workers of the dead weren’t answering phone calls from the New York playwright.
That writer, Jessica Blank, wanted to know if they would be interested in sharing their stories for the play she was creating with her husband and frequent collaborator, Erik Jensen. The couple are best known for “The Exonerated,” based on interviews with former death-row prisoners who were wrongfully convicted.
For their latest documentary project, the Public Theater commissioned them to write about the mining tragedy that sent reporters flooding into the tiny rural community of Montcoal, West Virginia, on April 5, 2010. A decade later, the play would tell the stories of the miners and their loved ones after the rest of the country stopped listening.
But no one was calling back.
“Then I realized,” said Blank, who is also the play’s director. “This is a place where you have to show your face.”
In April 2016, she took a trip down to Charleston, Wes Virginia, where the mining company’s former chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was being sentenced to prison after he was convicted of conspiring to violate federal safety standards at the nonunion Upper Big Branch mine. There, she introduced herself to the family members of the dead miners. Later on, they introduced her to others.
The resulting play, Coal Country, which is in previews and opens March 3, is an artfully edited patchwork of memories from the days before and after the explosion ripped through the mine and tore families apart. Among the voices are a miner who lost three family members in the blast; a union loyalist troubled to observe workers intimidated into silence by their new bosses; and a wife who had vainly begged her husband to put his safety first.
Blank and Jensen want Manhattan theatergoers to sit and listen to these stories of people who live deep in Trump country, where coal mining is inextricably linked with daily life and the national press tends to only visit when there’s a disaster.
It’s a well-known refrain that theater is a way to facilitate empathy, and these playwrights noticed a specific lack of it between their subjects and their audience.
“Theater has tremendous untapped power in a country where we’re so divided,” Blank said, “where, I believe, most of our problems can be traced back to a lack of empathy.”
Interspersed in the monologue-driven show is a score of haunting folk music, by singer-songwriter Steve Earle, that combines work songs, love songs and odes to the dead.
Starting out on the project, Earle, who is from Texas, was more familiar with West Virginia than Blank, who describes herself as growing up among the “East Coast intelligentsia,” or Jensen, a product of working-class Minnesota. Earle often stops in West Virginia while on tour with his band, but even he felt disconnected from that part of the country.
“I was getting concerned that people like me that think they’re ‘down with the working guy’ have completely lost touch with the people they’re supposedly championing,” he said.
Earle plans to release an album in May called Ghosts of West Virginia, comprised mostly of songs he wrote for “Coal Country.” His challenge: “How do I make a record that speaks to people who didn’t vote the same way that I did?”
In May 2016, days before West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the Republican primary, the two playwrights and the folk musician were staying at a Holiday Inn in Beckley, West Virginia, about an hour’s drive from the homes where they would interview surviving miners and the family members of the deceased.
Each interview took about four hours, and they could be overwhelmingly emotional. In one conversation, a miner described the dark, claustrophobic trip far underground, where the best coal was found. In others, the men and women recalled exactly where they were when they first got news of something bad happening down in the mine.
Stories like these became the building blocks for the script (some liberties were taken with the exact language). The play is suffused with testimony about union rights and corporate greed, but it often gets down to small everyday moments like a husband and wife in bed sharing their most pressing worries.
Making art about recent real-life tragedies can be sensitive, and often questions are asked about who should be given the power to tell those stories.
Through their interviews with the former death row inmates and then Iraqi refugees, which they made into another documentary play, “Aftermath,” Blank and Jensen have learned how to earn the trust of people who have gone through harrowing tragedy. They have a rule against pursuing interviews with people who are wary of telling their stories. And they know that it helps to share bits of their own trauma to even the emotional playing field.
“You have to show up,” Jensen said of the process, “and you have to, in your heart, know that this is not about you.”
On one wall of the play’s East Village rehearsal space is a large timeline of the day of the tragedy, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. Below it is a timeline of the aftermath, with important events written with a marker or pen.
Blankenship was indicted in 2014 after several investigations determined that the owner of the mine, Massey Energy Co., routinely ignored safety violations. In 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison for the conspiracy conviction. (The former energy executive has continued to challenge his conviction amid attempts to launch a political career.)
Ezra Knight, the actor playing a mine employee named Roosevelt Lynch Jr., who lost his father in the explosion, said workshopping the play doubled as a master class in understanding Appalachia. The actors learned terms like “longwall” (where the high-quality coal is found) and studied how coal is mined from it (sheared off, the script says, like a cheese slicer “cutting through hot butter”).
They all found themselves imagining what it was like to spend several hours a day in tight quarters underground in temperatures that shifted between blistering heat and freezing cold.
“I get uptight just going through the Holland Tunnel,” Jensen said. “I wouldn’t make it.”
The four men and three women depicted in the play will be invited to see the show, but the playwrights made sure they knew that their presence wasn’t expected. After all, Blank said, they are the people who know the story best; the people that she and her husband most want the play to reach are those who know little about it.
Members of the cast are split on whether they want to be told that the people they are playing show up in the audience, Knight said. “I want to know,” he added. “I want to meet him before the show and talk to him afterward.”
The mining families who can’t make it to New York for the play may have another chance. The playwrights hope that, one day, they can bring “Coal Country” to West Virginia. (NYT copyright)