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Review: Coal Country Gives the Victims of the UBB Mine Explosion Another Chance at Vindication

The documentary play returns to New York City after its 2020 world premiere at the Public Theater was cut short.

Ezra Knight, Carl Palmer, Michael Laurence, and Thomas Kopache in the return engagement of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's documentary play Coal Country at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

When Coal Country opened at the Public Theater on March 3, 2020, it was met with glowing reviews (including my own) and gave a bunch of election-weary New Yorkers an opportunity to empathize with a group of folks who, in all likelihood, would not be pushing the same buttons at the polls that coming November.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's documentary piece recounts the horrific Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners in Montcoal, West Virginia, in 2010, and gives seven of the victims' family members the floor as they put flesh and bone on the stories that faded into the background of the 24-hour news cycle a decade earlier. After having their day in court against Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, which had a less-than-satisfying result — as it typically does for victims of corporate greed in America — Blank and Jensen's heart-rending mosaic of testimonials was a second chance for these betrayed individuals to be heard, acknowledged, and remembered. Nine days after it seemed like this hope was finally being realized, the world shut down.

Thomas Kopache and the cast of Coal Country.
(© Joan Marcus)

All this to say — third time's the charm. Not only is Coal Country having a much-deserved remounting off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre (a cozy and rustic house even better suited to the show's content than the Public), but its reach was exponentially expanded through a recording of the play released this past fall by Audible Theater (Audible produces the return engagement as well). And while designers Jessica Jahn (costumes), Richard Hoover (sets), and David Lander (lighting) tell a vivid story with their unfussy, earth-toned (and denim-filled) aesthetic, the heart of Coal Country is in its sounds: Ezra Knight's booming narrations as Roosevelt, who proudly remembers his father's music collection; Carl Palmer (one of the cast's newcomers) and Amelia Campbell's sweet flirtation as miner "Goose" and his wife, Mindi; Thomas Kopache with his gentle drawl as Gary, a 34-year mining veteran and union man through and through; Michael Laurence, whose shaggy hair, flannel, and tattoos cut through his weather-worn voice as Tommy, a man for whom coal is a family business; Mary Bacon speaking simple words of love as Patti, a woman who lost her fiancé in the explosion; and Deirdre Madigan, subtly tidying up the West Virginia dialect for her character Judy, a sister of one of the victims and physician by trade who becomes her own tiny powder keg of class warfare — lest we forget this is still America.

Steve Earle in Coal Country at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Steve Earle, of course, is the centerpiece of Coal Country's aural experience. From the sidelines, he infuses the air with the sounds of Appalachia, musically cutting to the elusive heart of this coal-mining community: its sense of family, legacy, pride, and so many other elements that bind identity. Earle sings several refrains of "Union, God, and Country" — the holy trinity of West Virginia — and invites his Yankee spectators to do the same. I said it two years ago, and I will say it again: This sing-along is one of the most stupefying things I've ever seen rouse a crowd of theater liberals, but if that isn't proof of the power of story, I don't know what is.

Then again, it's worth noting that just a month after Coal Country's 2020 world premiere, disgraced CEO Don Blankenship published his own story, abnegating all responsibility for the UBB mine explosion. You can find it on Audible.

If that isn't proof of the power of capitalism, I don't know what is.

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