COAL COUNTRY – Written by Erik Jensen, Jessica Blank and Steve Earle; Directed by Jessica Robblee. Produced by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (presented at the Dairy Center, 2590 Walnut, Boulder) through November 16. Tickets Available at 303-444-7328 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new form of theatre is becoming recognized as having validity and purpose in a changing world. Documentary theatre is an examination of a real-life situation, unethical episode, tragic event, or cataclysmic happening then portrayed in such a way as to lend understanding, sympathy, perhaps acceptance or resistance to the root causes. An example would be THE LARAMIE PROJECT in which interviews were conducted with the residents of Laramie, Wyoming after the brutal murder of a gay college student to explore how the event had resonated with its citizens and led them to a broader understanding. THE GUYS could be considered another in which a fire chief in New York after 9/11 enlists a journalist to help him write individual obituaries for his men who had died on that day.
COAL COUNTRY too is a documentary presentation about the families of the men who died in a 2010 coal mine explosion in West Virginia. It details their lifestyle, their dependence on the only means of making a living in that area, their efforts – fruitless – to get the mining company to uphold the safety regulations in place, and ultimately, their grief and anger when their worst fears were realized.
There are husbands, brothers, sons lost in the avoidable explosion. Even though the rallying song proclaims “Union, God and Country was all we ever knew,” this was not a union mine and the local managers were unable to wield enough power to get the unsafe working conditions changed. Twenty-nine men died “Five Miles In and One Mile Down,” as recorded in a song commemorating the event.
The explosion occurred in 2010. In 2012, although purchased by another coal mining company, the Upper Big Branch mine was permanently closed with cement being poured into every opening. In 2014, the owner of Massey Energy, who owned UBB at the time of the explosion, was sentenced to one year on a misdemeanor charge, an act depicted in the play as a slap on the wrist. In a settlement with the new owners, each family of the deceased miners was awarded $1.5 million for their loss. This play was written in 2020. It would have been an interesting footnote to find out how this community and these people we’ve come to care about survived the closing of the mine. Where did they go? What did they do when there were no jobs left?
But has anything changed? It appears that this avoidable event has made a slight impact on the coal industry. Owing to the 29 from UBB, 72 miners died in accidents in that year. Last year in 2022, “only” 29 died in mining operations. Could this be considered an improvement?
This troupe of nine actors tell a compelling story. Chris Kendall brought his grizzled persona to the stage as a third-generation miner now too old to go underground. Anastasia Davidson lost her husband; Martha Harmon Pardee lost her brother. Mark Collins and Lindsey Pierce play a married couple who lost friends and colleagues but were safe. Cajardo Lindsey and Jason Maxwell were angry miners who were not in the mine when it happened. Simone St. John was the judge who couldn’t really deliver good news to the remaining families. And Joe Jung sang the music of the miners, some traditional and some original to the production. Their delivery was unified and powerful; these were truly portrayed as family members caught in this unbearable event, waiting for word about their loved ones, and mourning when information came about no survivors.
The production is enhanced by Tina Anderson’s powerful set signifying the opening of a tunnel that has been damaged and looks unsafe. The rendering of the explosion itself is powerfully supported by the Light Design of Erin Thibodaux and Sound Design of Jason Ducat.
A WOW factor of 8.5!!