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
“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
“...I guess that’s just the way it is
spend your life passing time
You can’t put your faith in
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
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
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
to earn their pay
When there was a bad explosion
entrance caved in
And the air became poisoned
to all within
When the church bell started tolling
rang 200 times
Once for every poor man
That perished in that
Now there’s a village full of women
grieving for their men
All those sisters, wives and mothers
And a thousand fatherless children
Oh, and some they wrote letters
rescue or death
And the last words of one man were
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
firstname.lastname@example.org and get your
hiking boots out of the closet. Cameras are welcome.