Documentary theater’s special power and credibility have always come from an appeal to fact. The problem is, the current moment of obscene public dishonesty and mass polarization presents very tricky conditions for such an art. How do you make a wide appeal to Fact when millions now mistrust authority and automatically believe the other side’s information is bogus? Verbatim interviews, court testimony, public documents and the like once provided reliable theatrical bona fides—as recently as 5 or 10 years ago! Today their credit is decidedly contingent. Supposedly hard evidence presented onstage can now seem soft, subject to doubts, from all sides, about how it was selected and manipulated for theatrical presentation.
Coal Country, Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s new documentary piece at the Public Theater, deals with the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 men in West Virginia. It is a work of unquestionable compassion and good will, built from interviews with victims’ families and court documents. Eight actors portray seven interviewees plus a judge, and the spoken testimony alternates with seven gorgeously gruff and tender country songs written and performed by Steve Earle.
For all its empathy, benevolence and musical beauty, however, Coal Country feels anomalously limited in the end, even a tad evasive. It leaves troubling political questions about the narrowness of its concept and frame.
First, credit and respect. Blank and Jensen are practically folk heroes to many for their magnificent, eye-and-soul-opening documentary play The Exonerated (2000), which used first-person narratives and legal records from wrongfully convicted death-row inmates to change minds, hearts and laws. That show, performed by actors speaking from humble stools, often with scripts in hand, was a pinnacle of documentary theater, and helped save innocent lives.
Coal Country is in the more polished style of the couple’s 2009 piece Aftermath, which was built from interviews with Iraqi refugees living in Jordan and used actors in full costume performing amid projections and location-setting furniture. Coal Country’s actors are dressed as ordinary West Virginians and speak both alone on the empty stage backed by broken wood slats, in pairs and threesomes, and in musical sequence with Earle’s singing and strumming. At one point the group performs a tightly choreographed number flinging metal benches about to approximate dangerous mining maneuvers.
The show starts with a foot-tapping song about the legendary miner-hero John Henry which sounds the theme of tough human workers threatened by automation and callous companies. The actors then tell personal stories that fill in the overarching backstory of a poor but intact single-industry community sapped and damaged by a new local employer, Massey Energy, even before the Upper Big Branch explosion.
After purchasing the lucrative Upper Big Branch from a unionized company, Massey broke the union, neglected the mine’s ventilation systems and safety procedures, and misled federal safety inspectors to ensure uninterrupted production. The workplace was “a ticking time bomb,” as one character says, that workers couldn’t avoid because the town had no other employer.
After the disaster, Massey added insult to injury by trying to silence the survivors. Public outrage was so furious, however, that CEO Don Blankenship was prosecuted. He was convicted on one of three counts, a misdemeanor of conspiring to violate mine safety standards, and served a year in prison with a $250,000 fine. Blankenship, who never appears, is the villain of the piece.
We get to know Goose (Michael Gaston), a third-generation miner and star athlete who is outspoken about Massey’s working conditions and says they remind him of his grandfather’s tales from the pre-union 1920s. Goose’s wife Mindi (Amelia Campbell) describes their modest, loving life together and pleads with him not to return to work. Tommy Davis (Michael Laurence), another third-generation miner who vividly describes the fearsome darkness and danger underground, lost three family members in the explosion. Roosevelt Lynch (Ezra Knight) and Gary Quarles (Thomas Kopache) unforgettably evoke the 1000-foot “longwall” three miles underground, where a 100-ton machine shears hot coal “like a cheese slicer.”
These characters are all richly detailed and deeply sympathetic. The acting is uniformly strong. And Earle’s music adds variety and complexity to spoken texts that might otherwise tend toward sameness and sentimentality. The song “Time is Never on Your Side” is heartbreakingly mournful: “The morning that the world began/ God reached out and closed his hand/ And when it opened up again/ A moment vanished in the wind.” The miners’ deaths register as terrible, momentous events amid this music.
How admirable it was of Blank and Jensen to reach out to people from a part of America so deeply and famously suspicious of citified artist-types like them. As the New York Times reported, the people were reluctant to talk to the couple but persistence and steady presence eventually won trust. The artists were thus able to collect and preserve these precious stories. Coal Country is in that sense an important class-bridge, an assemblage of experiences new to most theatergoers that are personal and specific enough to generate empathy in anyone. The piece is a moving requiem for the dead, a ringing (if rather nonspecific) cry against injustice, and a stout counterpunch against the forces of erasure and forgetting.
All of that said, I left Coal Country feeling unsatisfied with the scope of its gaze, with the lines it drew around the implications of the Upper Big Branch disaster. The meaning of this infuriating event resonates far beyond the details of these particular stories—in moral, political and historical terms—in many ways the play doesn’t acknowledge. What, after empathizing with these people’s suffering, are we supposed to do with those recognitions?
A rousing song by Earle called “Union God and Country,” for example, describes the values the people hold most dear.
MY DADDY WAS A MINER MY DADDY’S DADDY TOO
UNION GOD AND COUNTRY WAS ALL THEY EVER KNEW
THEY WORKED FROM EARLY MORNIN’ TILL THE EVENIN’ WHISTLE BLEW
WHEN THEY’D STRIKE THE MINE THEY’D WALK THE LINE CAUSE THAT’S JUST WHAT YOU’D DO
WHEN YOU’RE BORN IN WEST VIRGINIA A MINER THROUGH AND THROUGH
UNION, GOD AND COUNTRY WAS ALL YOU EVER KNEW
Is it peevish, or classist, or elitist, of me to ask whether American citizens in the media age, regardless where they live, bear some responsibility to widen their view beyond this, to progress from “all you ever knew” to “what we ought to know”?
What about the environment, for instance? Are we to assume that all these people are climate-change deniers? And if not, how do they justify electing leaders who are? The current West Virginia governor, Jim Justice, is a billionaire coal exec and Trump-supporter who constantly presses to roll back environmental regulations. Don Blankenship got more than 27,000 votes in his 2018 run for the U.S. Senate. The play says nothing about these larger-context matters.
The most educated character in Coal Country is a physician named Judy Jones (played by Deirdre Madigan) whose brother was killed in the mine. She comments near the end: “we’re all complicit because the lights must stay on, I mean, we’re addicted to electricity, right? We’re addicted to air conditioning, right?” But wait a minute. Are we all really complicit in that way? Shouldn’t a doctor be aware that West Virginia could invest in energy sources cleaner than coal if it wanted to?
To this New Yorker, one major lesson of the Upper Big Branch disaster is that the coal industry is unforgivably dirty in more than one way, and it’s time for everyone to start turning decisively to alternatives. Look around! What more loving legacy could there be for those 29 lost lives than to move us all closer to that realization?
Photos: Joan Marcus
By Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
Original music by Steve Earle
Directed by Jessica Blank