Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coal Country: Docudrama with a Pulse

Steve Earle (right) in Coal Country at The Public Theater in New York City. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Steve Earle’s haunting, melodic folk music is the lyrical pulse of the docudrama Coal Country, which is playing upstairs at the Public Theater. Earle wanders onto the stage of the Anspacher with his trademark air of bemused irony, sits down stage left and begins to sing a John Henry song, which functions as a general introduction to the play’s story about some other men and a big machine. In this case it’s the Massey Energy Company, which took over the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, made it non-union and ran it in violation of safety standards until it exploded in April of 2010, killing twenty-nine men. (The company’s chief executive, Donald Blankenship, was sentenced to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine, and when he got out he claimed he’d been framed by the government. He’s still using his fantastic version of the story as a platform for a hopeful political career.) The Public commissioned the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, who had taken on the subject of innocent men on Death Row in The Exonerated , to develop the piece based on interviews with the Montcoal community, who show up in Coal Country in the roles of survivors and mourners, four men and two women. Blank also directed.