“Welcome to Coal Country,” grumbles Steve Earle, strumming his guitar like an Appalachian Bard at the beginning of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play of the same name. “We’re come here tonight to tell you a story, a West Virginia story that happened not too long ago, a West Virginia story about 29 men and a Big Machine.”
The Big Machine, we learn, is Massey Energy, the coal company helmed by CEO Don Blankenship, on trial for violations of mine health and safety standards that led to the death of 29 workers. It is, unfortunately, a scenario drawn directly from real-world headlines. In 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, resulting from a coal dust explosion, was the worst mining accident in the U.S. since 1970. Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison as a result.
Coal Country is not just inspired by these events—it is a documentary account of them. Blank and Jensen, who previously wrote The Exonerated based on interviews with wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners, perform a similar feat here. In 2016, they began traveling to West Virginia to speak with family members of the Upper Big Branch victims. Their testimonies, edited and arranged for maximum dramatic effect, comprise the dialogue. Their veracity provides an extra dose of potency to their narratives.
“I’ve ain’t never done nothin’ like this before. I’ve never been a person that’s speaked out in front of people. Never told a book report, poem, anything, stand up in front of school, never,” says Gary Quarles (Thomas Kopache), one of the testifiers, by way of introduction. That reticence doesn’t last. Gary and his compatriots—among them, a nurse, a miner who lost three family members, a miner’s wife, and an old-school union guy—are eager to share, tossing the mic, so to speak, back and forth with ease.
At first, their stories are broad and vivid. They cover first dates, hunting, music collections, and, of course, the significance of mining in their families. These stories get us invested in the characters, and paint a portrait of modern West Virginia culture. And they’re delivered with pluckiness and grit by the cast. Together, under Blank’s direction, they fill a virtually empty set with color and detail.
But they pass by too quickly. Soon, we’re wrapped up in the tick-tock of the accident—how it happened, how everyone found out about it, the agonizing delay in discovering who was among the dead, the particularities of the trial against Blankenship. It’s devastating stuff, but with the outcome foretold from the start, there’s not much intrigue to string audiences along, only a rolling tsk-tsk.
Luckily, there’s Steve Earle, jumping in intermittently with folk and country songs—by turns foot-stompy (“It’s About Blood”) and grim (“Time Is Never On Your Side”)—that keep the momentum going. When the cast joins in at times, their sense of solidarity is made powerfully visceral. Occasional choreographed moments—including one involving much picking up and putting down of benches—strive for a similar effect with less success.
At a time when the denizens of coal country—presumably Trump country—may seem far-off and foreign to audiences in Manhattan, Coal Country is an important reminder of their humanity and their precariousness. “People say why don’t you just quit, I’d rather work at McDonald’s and make nine dollar an hour,” says Mindi (Amelia Campbell), the miner’s wife. “But you don’t understand, there weren’t no McDonalds. Only jobs in this area are coal-related.”
While Coal Country gives us plenty of reason to sympathize with this group, it doesn’t leave us much occasion to hope for them. “Everything dryin’ up, all the mom and pop stores closed. Some towns ain’t nothin but a ghost town,” Roosevelt (Ezra Knight) laments as the show ends. But life, surely, goes on in West Virginia, as well as the struggle for a better future. Where is the next battlefield in the fight against injustice? Invested audiences will want to know.