Cover Story

The Survivors’ Tale
A playwright’s perspective on the process of a ‘project’

Coal Dust

A theatrical project produces a poignant play from the depths of a historic mining disaster

Studio 1 on the seventh floor of the Candy Factory is a bare room with a worn, once-varnished plywood floor, a ballet bar on one wall and another wall of mirrored glass. Its ceiling is laced with dusty ductwork, pipes and wires. Pale fluorescent lighting adds no tone to the dull ivory paint that dominates the scene. A rehearsal is in progress in that cavernous space.

The set is stark, and so is the subject. Men and women of the Actors Co-op are waiting in imaginary wings, then circling and blocking their stage positions, reciting their lines from the third act of The Coal Creek Project, an original play that the whole company has been involved in producing.

The script is as simple as the set, which will be recreated in all its desolation this month and next at the Black Box Theatre in Bearden. The production will then go on the road in the coal mining region of East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky. The show will play to little crowds in upcountry towns, in school auditoriums and gyms and in an amphitheater carved out of a coke oven where deep-mined coal was once baked to make it a more efficient fuel.

The Coal Creek Project is based on the Fraterville Mine disaster of 1902, when more than 200 miners died in a coal dust blast, triggered by a methane pocket that was opened and ignited by the miners’ lamps. The concussion and cave-ins killed them outright or left them pinned underground to suffocate, despite heroic efforts at rescue. The play focuses on the surviving women, as the dead made up all but three of the adult males who lived in the tiny town of Fraterville between Briceville and Lake City. How the survivors cope with the devastating atmosphere in the aftermath of the tragedy is a theme punctuated with moving song and touching soliloquies, based on the last words some of the trapped miners wrote down for their loved ones outside.

“I caught the mantrip [mule cart] that morning with most of the men. An hour later, I died with most of them, too. The explosion drank up all the air, and I died on my knees in the darkness gasping for breath”
—William Henry Wallace

Dubbed Measured in Labor: The Coal Creek Project, the work follows the plight of one extended family, shared with friends and would-be rescuers, in which the mother, a daughter, two widowed daughters in-law, and the youngest of six sons are left. Five brothers died, and the youngest is torn to distraction by the fact that May 19, ‘02 was his day off. The central figure is the mother, whose role is based on a previously widowed woman who lost five sons that day. Her quiet grief and stoicism are derived from the historic account of her reaction to the loss.

“...I guess that’s just the way it is
You spend your life passing time
You can’t put your faith in tomorrow
When you make your living in the mines...”

—From “Wakefield Widow” by Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle
Barbra and Pirkle will perform in the play’s wings, playing and singing one of their older pieces and four new songs written for the Coal Creek Project.

When it takes to the road, the troupe will play free-of-charge to people of that hardscrabble area, where deep mining is history, but coal is still stripped from beneath the surface by ‘dozers and shovels so big they would have dwarfed whole coal settlements of the past. Some of the people who see the play will likely be experiencing their first live theatrical presentation, says Amy Hubbard, artistic director of the Actors Co-op and the motive force behind the play’s development.

That fact of modern life in the backcountry is driven home by an experience of Carol Moore, a board member and vigorous volunteer for the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. That organization provided background material for the playwright and took the whole theater company on a tour of the Fraterville area, including the sealed-up minesite, what’s left of the town, and the graveyard where 184 of the miners are buried. They lie in concentric circles around an obelisk that is the monument to the disaster.

Not long ago, Moore took a group of elementary school students to the Cracker Barrel in Lake City as a reward for their school accomplishments. She learned from their teacher that some of the kids had asked her how to act in a restaurant. They’d never been in one before. They’ve seen plays performed by students in their schools, but not by professional actors, Moore says she believes.

It was her appreciation of the mournful lyrics of “Wakefield Widow” and her learning, now more than two years ago, of the Fraterville disaster, that got Hubbard to brainstorming the idea of the project with Kara Kemp, Actors Co-op’s managing director, who had just returned from a training session at the Saratoga International Theatre Institute, on the subject of creating “new text or old text in a new way” through ensemble efforts.

Kemp, now the play’s director, “came home wanting to create a theater piece with our whole company working together,” Hubbard says. “I suggested [the Fraterville tragedy] and connected it to Sarah and Jeff’s song. Before long, we were putting all the pieces together.”

An important piece was securing a playwright, and Alan Gratz, a former member of Actors Co-op, a freelance designer and writer who had authored successful plays before, two of which became Actors Co-op productions.

“He worked with us really well,” says Kemp, “The process was different from any play I’ve ever directed. We’ve been working together for a year on the script.

“At first, it was ‘Wow, what are we getting ourselves into?’ But I think it worked.”

Kemp says the cast’s getting together at the site of the disaster March 28 gave them a much better idea of what they were portraying. “My actors had a visual of where they were supposed to be, and they really responded,” she says.

There was a moment for her, especially, at the sealed mouth of the mine, when Pirkle and Barbra, posing for a photo, started to play. There were no lyrics to be sung. It was an instrumental piece called “The December 13th Waltz,” written for the play. “I was overcome with pride and respect for what we’re doing. There were goosebumps all over,” Kemp says.

Again, with the cast gathered at the cemetery, Barbra and Pirkle played. Barbra says the whole experience on the ground up at Fraterville was moving, “to say the least. To go back up there where it all happened. It finally hit me how important this was and still is.” He says he didn’t see a dry eye at the cemetery, where they sang, “Shine A Little Light on Me.” The last stanza, he says, got to everyone. It goes, “When my life is over and my body lies cold/And all my work here is done/Don’t spend money for a stone over me/Just make sure that I rest in the sun.”

There is a belief about deep miners, that they are down around the lower rungs of the laboring class, maybe because they work so far underground. And the play doesn’t do much to dispel that notion, except to point out that mining is work that gets in the blood and runs in families. Lots of miners of that period emigrated from the mining camps of Europe, especially the British Isles, to seek mining jobs in Appalachia. The nature of the job is explained to some extent in the soliloquies of the miners that intersperse the play between acts and scenes. Some are as descriptive as they are terrifying. To give examples:

“There’s some as think that coal miners are an ignorant lot. What most people don’t realize is that you have to be smart, or else you’ll get yourself killed in the mines... You listen for the sound of rats, and when you don’t hear them no more, you know to clear out, for they know when the earth is gonna move long before you know it... Sometimes, though, you don’t get no warning, Sometimes there ain’t nothing you can do. Sometimes, the smartest thing is not to be there to start with. My name is Marvin J. Witt. I died when the roof fell in.”

“My name’s Forrest Smith. I was a miner like my daddy before me, and his daddy before him, and so on back to Wales.... Well, it was like the air itself lit afire.... I suffocated six hours later, still awaiting rescue. They found my body with the nose tore off my face, trying to steal just one more breath.”

One the play’s principal characters is named Eileen. She’s the wife of the foreman who died in the mine, but, having been in charge, was blamed by some for the accident. She goes out of her mind but redeems herself by saving a life in one scene. Her contribution to the dialogue is mainly in the many descriptive superstitions she summons up. She paints her windows black to keep moonlight from falling on her and driving her “crazy” while she sleeps. Finally, she decides to sleep under the bed to be safe from the moonglow. She at first refuses to turn an inside-out garment back around, or “the devil will get you.” She relents and then blames that act for the loss of her husband. She says that rocking an empty rocker brings death to a family, and that one doesn’t turn back home for something forgotten unless one sits down and counts to seven backwards. She warns of bringing a spade indoors, as it “brings death to a house.” At length, Eileen speculates there must have been a cat in the mine, and that’s why the men are all dead.

“Everything we do has consequences,” is Eileen’s mantra. “Every little thing we do has its consequences.”

“I’m Duncan McKamey, the mine foreman for the Fraterville mine.... People will say that it’s my fault the mine exploded.... But I cared about those men, no matter what people say. When that mine exploded...I died right alongside them.”

Amy Hubbard plays Rose, one of the daughters-in-law. She agrees to marry one of those who were trying to rescue her husband and the others, a virtual professional at rescue work named Preston, when he proposes to her. She says it’s not that she loves him, but that she has to think of her own baby daughter’s future. Preston’s a bit of a rounder, as evidence by:

“...A good mountain man likes his coffee strong enough to float an iron wedge, and his liquor strong enough to make a rabbit spit in a bulldog’s face,” is one of this more memorable lines. He is at first confident that at least some of the victims will be rescued.
“Seen one [mine explosion], been through another. And I ain’t never known one where most of the men didn’t crawl out alive at the end of the day.”

The dialogue seems accurate in its regional and historical detail, and it certainly has its poignant moments framed well. But it is still the lyrics of the Barbra/Pirkle songs that are among the most moving passages.

...They had gone three miles deep
Digging Coal to earn their pay

When there was a bad explosion
And the entrance caved in
And the air became poisoned
Bringing death to all within

When the church bell started tolling
Lord it rang 200 times
Once for every poor man
That perished in that mine

Now there’s a village full of women
That are grieving for their men
All those sisters, wives and mothers
And a thousand fatherless children

Oh, and some they wrote letters
Awaiting rescue or death
And the last words of one man were
Oh God, for one more breath

—“For One More Breath” by Sarah Pirkle

The play premieres at the Black Box Theatre, 5213 Homberg Drive on April 23. Tickets are $12 general admission and $8 for students and seniors. Thursdays all tickets are $5. Times, reservations, and other information are available at 865-909-9300. It runs through May 15 there, then goes on tour for free showings. It travels to Pikeville, Ky. for a June 5 performance in the high school auditorium there, a June 12 date at the Lake City elementary school gymnasium, a June 19 date in the Coke Oven Amphitheatre in Dunlap, Tenn., and a June 26 performance in the Southeast Kentucky Community College theater at Cumberland, Ky.

The troupe wants to present the play at Briceville’s elementary school as well, but that may have to wait on cooler weather, as the school is not air-conditioned.

In order to defray the costs of the road shows, the troupe has secured support from various organizations and has gotten venue commitments in the communities being served. It’s also applying for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that are available for companies bringing theatrical performances of historical significance to underserved areas.

A bus tour of the Fraterville site and cemeteries will be conducted May 15, 8:30 a.m.-noon by the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation. The tour, which is free of charge, starts and ends at Briceville. Seating is limited on the buses. For reservations and directions to Briceville call Carol Moore at 865-584-0344 or email and get your hiking boots out of the closet. Cameras are welcome.

April 8, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 15
© 2004 Metro Pulse

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