Testimonial theater has a unique dramatic power, drawing its energy and moral authority from naturalism. Fathers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, sibling pacifist Catholic clerics, joined others in defacing and destroying draft records to protest the war in Vietnam, in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. A shattered Vietnam veteran and the two women in his life simply sat at a table addressing the audience, in Emily Mann’s Still Life. Just recently, the transcript of two FBI agents interviewing a woman who has leaked documents relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election was the basis of the gripping show Is This a Room?
These things happened. These words were spoken. These were the consequences.
It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since the married writer-directors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen shaped the testimony of five men and one woman – found innocent of the murders for which they’d been convicted and imprisoned – into the heart-piercing play (and later the TV film) The Exonerated.
At the Public Theater, Blank and Jensen return to the form with Coal Country, a 90-minute work no less powerful for its brevity. It’s about the 2010 explosion in a West Virginia mine that left 29 dead. They represented three generations of families whose lives and community were one with the mountains that reluctantly yielded their hard bounty.
Part of the story’s pathos lies in the fact that such ruinous tragedies are all too familiar. Set in motion by the greed and avarice of owners whose sole connection to the dangerous labor is the profits they produce, these tales seem as old as the mountains themselves, immortalized in folk songs that have their own moral force.
The authors acknowledge this. On Richard Hoover’s plain wooden set, eerily lit by David Lander, a singer comes forward at the opening with his guitar, welcomes us, and refreshes our memory of another West Virginia disaster by singing “John Henry,” that “steel-drivin’ man” who “died in West Virginia with his hammer in his hand.”
The singer has drawn our applause because he’s Steve Earle, the songwriter and author commissioned, along with the playwrights, by the Public to compose a score for the show. Earle has the long gray beard and intense eyes of an Old Testament prophet (not that I’ve ever actually met an Old Testament prophet; I’m merely named for one). But his demeanor is kindly, almost sheepish, as if he were a reluctant emcee.
The stage goes dark, and we hear the gospel-inflected “Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” to bring us from John Henry to the near-present. The lights then come up on a judge (Melinda Tanner) who opens the trial of Don Blankenship (unseen), CEO of the company that purchased the mine and methodically stripped away the safeguards and work rules meant to protect men who expected to die slowly from black lung disease but didn’t think they’d be blown up in a fireball of methane gas and debris murderous like shrapnel.
The testimony is drawn directly from interviews with the survivors, including three women (Mary Bacon, Deirdre Madigan and the too-long absent Amelia Campbell) and four men (Michael Gaston, Ezra Knight, Thomas Kopache and Michael Laurence). They are loving family folk toughened by lives spent in darkness and, as conditions worsen, growing fear. Still, they have little tolerance for whiners, because this is the life assigned to them. “The Devil Put Coal in the Ground,” Earle sings. “Black lung’ll kill me someday / Already underground I reckon anyway.”
“Please don’t ever go back,” a wife implores her husband. “It’s what I do,” he replies. “You listen to me, if I have to buy macaroni, and we eat macaroni one night and the cheese sauce the next, and the box the next day, we will make it.”
Sometimes Earle trades his guitar for a banjo, which adds a plaintive tone to songs that grow increasingly mournful. In the song that captures all the pent-up emotion of the survivors, they enumerate the loss, first in general terms and then by naming the dead as a twinkling overhead lamp lit up for each of them.
The outcome of the trial will come as no surprise if you know your Woody Guthrie or, for that matter, your Steve Earle. Coal Country left me at once elated and sad, as folk songs will do, moved by its simplicity and unself-conscious directness. These things happened. These words were spoken. These were the consequences. It’s a tapestry of grief, and it’s a beauty.