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Coal Country
It's Iike a leading edge of a thunderstorm. The force of that air was so great, buckets blowing by, equipment in the air. It was like being in a hurricane. I felt like it was gone pick me up. .— Goose
Steve Earle performs in Coal Country. Photo: Joan Marcus
Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen's Coal Country is a documentary drama about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 men on April 5, 2010. Directed by Jessica Blank, and with original music by singer-songwriter Steve Earle, it presents a series of searing first-person accounts of the disaster, as told by the survivors and family members of the victims.

Coal Country shares the same DNA as the authors' earlier works, The Exonerated and Aftermath. And, like these earlier works, Coal Country's power lies in its earnestness and unvarnished truth.

When the lights go up, Earle strolls on stage with his guitar, sits down at center stage, and welcomes you to"Coal Country." He warms up the audience with a ballad about 19th-century folk hero John Henry, who, according to tradition, defeated a steam drill when working on the Great Bend tunnel in West Virginia with only his hammer.

Earle croons the lyrics with country flavor: "John Henry was a steel drivin' man/ Beat the steam drill down and then he died/ And it didn't change nothin' but heaven knows he tried/ He was buried with his hammer by his side . . ." Although this song on the surface might seem to have little to do with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, it surely succeeds in creating real West Virginian atmosphere and introducing the man-over-machine idea that threads throughout the piece.

Once the ballad fades out, and the play proper begins. You glimpse a woman upstage, with seven other performers standing slightly downstage of her, holding letters. The sound of a gavel lets you know that Court is in session and that the woman upstage is Jactually udge Berger (Melinda Tanner). She soberly reads the verdict on the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion: "Mr. Blankenship, as CEO of Massey Energy, you have been convicted of conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine health and safety standards in violation of 18, USC, Section 371, prior to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine." After a silence in the Court and then the grieving family members will begin to address the Court and read aloud their testimonies.

There's the account told by the emotionally-contained Gary Quarles, sixty-something, who has had 34 years in coal mining. His son is the fourth generation of his family working in the mines. He tells us that he's"never been a person that's speaked out in front of people. . . .but his crews was like family."

Th e wiry Tommy Davis (Michael Lawrence)tosses away his written script because he's"gonna let it go free rip." And he not only recounts his family's history in mining but describes the time he took his young son deer hunting with him and tried to teach him about his ancestors living off the land: "You go back in the days son, they didn't have a Kroger, didn't have a Walmart. We don't eat store bought. I will teach you what my Daddy taught me."

The whip smart Dr. Judy Peterson (Deirdre Madigan) talks about growing up in a mine family, and though mining was a family tradition, not all the men in her family went into it. She explains how her identical twin brothers, Dean and Gene, took different life paths. Gene worked six months in the mines but decided "underground was not for him. Dean went down and he stayed.

What you see in Coal Country is oral tradition in the flesh and blood. And, as the survivors and family member's stories cumulatively build on each other, you get a full portrait of life in Coal Country.

The most vivid moments of course involvethe disaster itself and its aftermath. You get a real sense of the horror in the mines when the methane explosion happened and what it was like to be in the midst of the coal dust swirling at hurricane force. Or as Goose describes it: "It's Ike a leading edge of a thunderstorm. The force of that air was so great, buckets blowing by, equipment in the air. It was like being in a hurricane. I felt like it was gone pick me up."

The raw first-hand accounts of the mine explosion owes much to the top-notch cast made up of veteran actors and up-and-comers. If there's any common trait in their acting, it's the naturalness that they infuse into their performances and the real twang in their voices.

The creative team also keeps things in accord with West Virginian culture. Richard Hoover's set design, lit by David Lander, is minimalist, with a beaten wooden floor, bare light bulbs, and a plain wooden chair. Jessica Jahn's costumes range from rugged miners' clothes to the austere robes of Judge Berger. Singer-songwriter Steve Earle shines on both sides of the footlights as music director and laid-back folk singer.

Although the play obviously focuses on the mine disaster and the terrible loss suffered by the miners' families, it also puts a glaring spotlight on former Massey Energy CEO Don Blakenship. The Court fined him two hundred and fifty thousand dollars and sentenced him to one year in prison. It angered a lot of people. And as the miner Tommy bluntly puts it: "He put money and greed over f-@#! human life."

While Coal Country is not escape entertsinent it's a necessary reminder of ordinary people's courage . Each story told here is a crie de couer. Attention must be paid.

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Coal Country by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen
Directed by Jessica Blank
Cast: Mary Bacon (Patti), Amelia Campbell (Mindi), Michael Gaston (Goose), Ezra Knight (Roosevelt), Thomas Kopache (Gary), Michael Lawrence (Tommy), Deirdre Madigan (Judy), and Melinda Tanner (Judge).
Sets: Richard Hoover
Costumes: Jessica Jahn
Lighting: David Lander
> Sound: Darron L. West
Original music: Steve Earle
Stage Manager: Janelle Caso
Reviewed at the matinee press performance on March 1st. Public Theater – Anspacher Theater at 425 Lafayette St., East Village . Street. Tickets: $65 and up. Phone (212) 967-7555 or online at
From 02/18/20; opening 03/03/20; closing 4/05/20.
Running Time: 1 hour; 30 minutes, with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan on 3/01/20

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