Public’s Coal Country Explodes Musically in a Heart Breaking Authenticity

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Steve Earle (foreground) in Coal Country. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

The Review: Public Theater’s Coal Country

By Ross

[Over the next few days, I’m posting reviews of shows I saw before Broadway and Off-Broadway went dark. It’s a sad and confusing time, but one where we need to remember and believe in the power of community and everything that theatre stands for. We need to support those who are desperately out of work now until the lights get turned on once again (think about donating to theatre companies or out-of-work artists through either of these two sites: actorsfund.org and broadwaycares.org – Thanks Lin-Manuel for the info). Let’s all send a thank you to those who work so tirelessly to bring these productions to life day in and day out. It must be a shock to their systems to not do the thing they love to do. We need to support one another as many isolate themselves trying to be safe or not spread this virus. I do not want to be a new version of Typhoid Mary, so I’ve been quiet and removed, slightly worried about my cough that I’ve had a few days now, but less worried because there is no fever and I’m a pretty healthy and fit man. Our world has changed quite dramatically almost overnight, but I for one have to believe that we will return somehow from all this, and sit once again as a community watching art and design stand proudly before us on stage. So here are a few reviews. It’s weird to finish writing them, but I want to remember, so I can remain hopeful. I hope this will have the same effect on you.]

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Ezra Knight, Michael Laurence, Thomas Kopache, and Michael Gaston in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

So, “here we go” as said by the phenomenal guitar-strumming singer who beckons us into Coal Country at The Public Theater, New York City. It’s strange to step back into time and write about a show I saw on March 7th, as I usually try to write about anything I see fairly soon after. That way the juices are flowing and I feel connected. But the show is about tragedy and loss, layered with anger and frustration, and that, I am sure, is something we can all attach to quite easily these days as we self-quarantine ourselves away from others and watch the U.S. government stumble and fall over themselves with their dangerous reluctance, most likely while they secretly find a way to make themselves some money on this terrorizing pandemic (just my opinion as to their slow response).

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Mary Bacon in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The opening is some foot-stomping storytelling if I ever heard it, written and performed by the musical director Steve Earle (2004’s The Revolution Starts Now), that magnetically lifts this piece up and beyond the documentary style of theater that playwright/director Jessica Blank and playwright Erik Jensen have excelled in producing. The two have previously crafted, to acclaim, the life-changing The Exonerated and its award-winning TV movie adaptation, as well as NYTW’s Aftermath, and with Coal Country, the duo has constructed a powerful venue for the coal miners and their families to speak out and let their voices be heard. Not surprisingly, they have a lot to say about that fateful day in Montcoal, West Virginia, when their lives exploded inward and out, burying their broken hearts with dirt and anger. Their existence changed forever in a flash that fateful April 5th, 2010 day when the largest U.S. mine explosion in half a century took the lives of 29 men, creating an emotional destruction that is devastatingly irreversible and painfully unimaginable.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
The company of Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

To make Coal Country, Blank and Jensen traveled to that small town in West Virginia in order to interview the survivors and family members of the miners who were killed in that deadly explosion. They sat in their homes and listened to their stories surrounding that event, and using their exact words, along with court documents, trial transcripts, and other primary source documents, they pieced together a text and tale that is simply put and unforgettable. Every word is true, and it rings just as true, thanks to the strong portrayals by Mary Bacon (Public’s Giant) as Patti, Amelia Campbell (Broadway’s Translations) as Mindi, Michael Gaston (Public’s Othello) as Goose, Ezra Knight (Broadway’s Mean Girls) as Roosevelt, Thomas Kipache (Public’s Coriolanus) as Gary, Michael Laurence (Broadway’s Talk Radio) as Tommy, Deirdre Madigan (Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton) as Judy, and Melinda Tanner (Broadway’s The Robber Bridegroom) as Judge Berger. They pull us in with their candor and authenticity, thanks to a clear vision by movement director Adesola Osakalumi (Broadway’s Fela!), slowly turning the screws on our emotional frailty, until the floodgates burst, and the pain burns the air around us.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, and Thomas Kopache in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

On a warm and beautifully simplistic set, designed by Richard Hoover (Public’s House Arrest); with strong and subtle costuming by Jessica Jahn (Daryl Roth’s Gloria: A Life), clear and concise lighting design by David Lander (Broadway’s Torch Song), solid sound design by Darron L. West (Public’s Mlima’s Tale), the story of that day and the frustrating all-to-real aftermath spins out powerfully and poetically, taking us on a journey down into the depths of heartbreak and loss, followed quickly by anger and frustration as to what happens next. The intensity is profound, particularly when I learned that in the audience that show-day were the real-life counterparts to the characters I just heard from on stage. Their pain ripped through the space, with one gentleman who was sitting behind me becoming so overwhelmed with grief that he had to leave midway. I could feel the sting of his tears and gasps for air down my neck, making my own discomfort and sadness minuscule to the hurt he was reliving.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank
Michael Gaston and Amelia Campbell in Coal Country. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The paralleling of the process with what is happening right now as we watch the U.S. White House Administration’s respond to this virus sends shivers down my spine. It’s unfathomable what is happening in the World and particularly in Washington. Just thinking about it makes me angry and frustrated as I sit in isolation, glad to have escaped to Canada and the land of universal health care (remind me once again Mr and Mrs GOP why universal healthcare is such a terrible idea??). The denial of responsibility in their handling is mind-boggling and anger-inducing, similar to how these characters feel about the owners and operators of the Montcoal mine, particularly when the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, West Virginia, May 2011 reported that “the explosion was the [clearly] the result of failures of basic safety systems [created] to protect the lives of the miners.” Coal Country lives up to its documentary-style purpose and then excels above and beyond its scope. We are given a boost musically and emotionally by this presentation of fact, filling us to the brim with heartbreak, loss, frustration, and anger, one that I will never be able to fully shake. It was a good primer for dealing with the crazy times we find ourselves in today. So stay safe, and speak up. Hopefully, it will save some lives if we do.

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve Earle Directed by Jessica Blank

Michael Gaston, Ezra Knight, and Thomas Kopache in Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle and direction by Jessica Blank, at The Public Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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