Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Featuring: Molly Andrews, Harvy Blanks, Nik Duggan, Karen Celia Heil, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus, Robert Parsons, Marie Shell and Harry Yaglijian
Directed by: Randal Myler
Musical direction by: Dan Wheetman
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: April 1-26, 2015
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $19-$74; visit www.theatreworks.org/shows/1415-season/fireonthemountain or call 1-650-463-1960
Read Joanne Engelhardt's review of this play in Regarding Arts.
Read John Orr's interview with co-scriptwriter and director Randal Mylar in The Daily News.
Read Karen D'Souza's review in The Mercury News.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review at SFGate.com.
of digging coal in Appalachia
has a moving, musical, true story to tell
Coal has been mined in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia since the 1880s, and it fueled America’s thirst for energy for most of the 20th century. It’s a dirty, dangerous business, not just because of the continuous possibility of cave-ins and explosions, but also the insidious long-term effects of breathing coal dust. "Black lung" disease has probably killed more miners than mining accidents.
But despite all these dangers, or maybe because of them, the Appalachian miners formed close communities and created some beautiful and haunting music, building on the traditional melodies and instruments of the area.
"Fire on the Mountain," a TheatreWorks production, is not a traditional play or musical. There is no central storyline, no lead characters. Rather, it is a journey through the lives of the miners and their families, told through and by traditional and new songs. It’s described as a bluegrass musical, but that’s not an accurate description. Bluegrass is all fast fiddles and banjos, "Deliverance" style. There are some bluegrass numbers, expertly played by Tony Marcus on fiddle, (who also played banjo and guitar), and Harry Yaglijian on mandolin, but a lot of the songs are what Marcus describes as "old-time" style. The old-time songs often tell a story. Sometimes they are sad, sometimes happy and sometimes just downright funny.
The whole stage is taken up by a single set, the outside of a mine with a coal wagon depicted on one side, and a miner’s home on the other. The stage is littered with instruments fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolin and even a dulcimer. Above the entrance to the mine is the banner "Be Careful Today Be Alive Tomorrow." Above the stage hang two giant screens on which are projected monotone pictures, images of miners, their families, mining towns, and reports of mining disasters. These were copied from pictures in the Smithsonian, and had a much more dour look to them, in contrast with the generally brightly-colored wooden set.
Much of the dialogue was taken from interviews that the authors, Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, conducted with actual miners and their families. The miners came from many different backgrounds Italians, Slavs, blacks but there was no racism. As one miner put it, "Our faces all look the same at the end of the day." In his interviews, Myler was especially taken with the way the miners, even after disasters and lung disease, always wanted to go back down the mine. There was something that just drew them back.
The coal mining companies often bought the mineral rights to farmland for mere pennies per acre. The farmers had no idea what they were worth, and then the companies would start stripping the land and dumping the waste in the rivers. John Prine’s song "Paradise," sung by the excellent David Lutken, tells the story of Muhlenberg County in Kentucky and the Peabody mining company:
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
A number of songs were sung a capella, and particularly memorable was "Where The Soul of Man Never Dies," sung by all nine of the cast in a soaring, almost gospel fashion. In contrast, Lutken’s "Little Log Cabin In The Lane" with just him and his guitar tugged at the heartstrings. "Blind Fiddler" tells the story of a fiddle-playing miner who lost his eyes in an accident in the Harlan Pits in 1956 but continued to play the fiddle, which was his only means of income.
A constant presence throughout the production was the haunting, plaintive voice of Molly Andrews. Andrews is a native of West Virginia, a daughter of coal miners and a skilled interpreter of Appalachian songs. She traces her ancestry back to the Mayflower, and when I talked with her, she told me how saddened she was by the wholesale destruction of the mountains through mountaintop-removal mining. "Black Waters," sung by Andrews, describes how the rivers turned black from all the waste dumped into them, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of the most poignant songs and tales describe the terrible cave-ins and accidents that killed hundreds of the miners and led them to unionize, and in some cases, strike. The company bosses didn’t seem to care, and continued to run the mines with lax safety practices. "Shut Up In The Mines of Coal Creek" tells of how the company decided that it was too dangerous to try and rescue the trapped miners, so they just sealed up the mine with the (supposedly) dead miners in it.
"Fire on the Mountain" is an emotional rollercoaster of a show. The music takes you soaring with extended fiddle solos and guitar virtuosity, and then brings you back down to earth with a tearjerker. There is no intermission, and you won’t want one. Just take me back to those Blue Ridge Mountains.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at email@example.com