Coal Country, a play honoring the victims of mining tragedy through the words of their loved ones, comes to Colorado

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4min 41sec
Michael Ensminger, courtesy of BETC
A scene from the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company’s production of Coal Country.

On April 5, 2010, coal dust ignited nearly a thousand feet underground at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. The explosion, and the poisonous gasses it released, killed 29 men working there.

The tragedy devastated nearby communities, where the lost miners left behind families, wives, girlfriends and lifelong friends.

The words of those survivors are the fuel that powers “Coal Country,” which has its regional premier at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder this month.

The play opens Boulder Ensemble Theater Company’s 18th season. It’s a season of change for the group, which is under new leadership and has returned to its original name. New Managing Director Mark Ragan brought the script to the company's new Producing Artistic Director, Jessica Robblee, and the new team agreed she should direct.

Coal Country “privileges you with a window into people's hardest time in such a frank and heartful sense,” said director Robblee,. “Because it's verbatim theater, you're really hearing what they said, and they were very hungry to have a chance to say it because they weren't able to speak in the courtroom.”

An investigation found significant negligence on the part of Massey Energy, which owned the mine. Six years after the explosion CEO Don Blanketship was found guilty of one charge of conspiring to violate mine safety rules — a misdemeanor — and sentenced to a year in federal prison.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen crafted “Coal Country” from interviews with loved ones members and two surviving miners. In the show, their words intertwine with original songs by Steve Earle.

For some of the performers in BETC’s production, learning about the disaster was a revelation, and brought them close to a community they knew little about before.

“You get used to hearing those things, and they don't always have the impact that they ought to,” said Chris Kendall who portrays Gary Quarles, a former coal miner in the show. “A play like this can really open people's eyes to what we're still going through in this country in terms of labor and management, in terms of the way that profit and loss weighs on people's lives.”

Michael Ensminger, courtesy of BETC
Chris Kendall portrays retired miner Gary Quarles in the BETC production of Coal Country.

While the overall story is grim, actor Anastasia Davidson says Robblee encouraged her to find the joyful moments for her character, Patty Stover, who’s fiancé was killed in the explosion.

”Yes, these folks went through an unimaginable devastating loss, but also they have such beautiful memories and there are things that can anger them and surprise them and that they can find joy in,” said Davidson. “And that has been helpful because I think finding those moments and those nuances within the character can really bring light to it.”

Telling factual stories through the voices of actual people comes with plenty of emotional and technical challenges, acknowledged Robblee. But on the flip side, this kind of storytelling has a special power.

“The gift of verbatim theater is that some of the descriptions in the show are not what a playwright would imagine, but they're what people thought in the moment. And that's so precious in a story like this.”

Kendall thinks this kind of theater can be healing, “to be able to turn that into art and present it to a much broader audience, it's essential work. It's heartening. It gives you a sense that you are helping somehow.” 

And with the story of the disaster fading from the public memory over the years, Davidson said that doing the play now is all that much more important.

“When something like this happens, where there's all of this attention all at once and then it goes away — all of a sudden media leaves the news stories stop being told, the trial is over — it can easily seem like the stories will be forgotten and that this community's heartbreak will be forgotten,” said Davidson. “I'm so grateful to be telling the story because it lives on and it is a way for us to continue to pass down these people's story."

Coal Country by Boulder Ensemble Theater Company plays at the Dairy Arts Center through November 19.

Editor's Note: Boulder Ensemble Theater Company is a financial supporter of CPR News, but has no editorial influence.