Out of the Dark: The Oral Histories of Appalachian Coal Miners, a new play written and directed by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate and instructor in Performance Studies Hannah Blevins and performed by Wordshed Productions April 29-May 1 in the Martha Nell Hardy Theater in Bingham Hall at UNC, is a harrowing, claustrophobic trip into the deep, dark, damp, dusty, and ever-dangerous coal mines that honeycomb the Appalachian mountains.
The miners enter the mines lying down on a mantrip for a 3½-mile journey. Once at their workstations, they must work stooped over or crawling on their knees. Coal miners work in the damp at a cool 55 degrees. They breathe rock dust and coal dust, and they brave cave-ins that will bury them alive under tons of rock. They fear hitting pockets of bad air that will kill them where they stand, explosive pockets of methane gas that will blow them to kingdom come, and underground reservoirs of water that can drown them before they have a chance to flee.
For this supremely risky occupation, they are paid more than they can make in other jobs that require a maximum of muscle and a minimum of education mental acuity. They brave the stigma of being considered dirty and stupid. They grow old young; and way too many of them die a slow, painful death from Black Lung (a.k.a. coal workers’ pneumoconiosis and silicosis), gasping out their last moments on earth.
It is southwest Virginia miners’ stories that Hannah Blevins sets out to tell, but the tale is universal. Blevins transforms a recent series of “ethnographic interviews,” which she conducted, into a powerful performance piece for five women and a cellist. Cristina Garcia plays Hannah the interviewer who must coax and prod her subjects into revealing their deepest fears and hurts and secrets. Hannah Blevins herself plays a couple of feisty coal miners named Earl and Donald, with just the right slump in her backbone (miners work in a space only 26-28 inches high) and just the right grit in her craw.
Annissa Clarke (Palmer, Pam), Elizabeth Nelson (Steve, Woman Miner), and Shannon O’Neill (Harley, Jimmy) likewise bare the souls of their coal-mining characters, while composer J. Mark Scearce and cellist Susanna Branyon play snippets of songs about life underground and provide poignant instrumental accompaniment throughout. Their music punctuates this deeply moving performance about the forgotten but all-important men and women who slave underground in the most appalling conditions to help meet this nation’s energy needs.
There is humor as well as pathos here, thanks to Hannah Blevins’ skill as a playwright and director. Out of the Dark, which turns the spotlight on the struggles of the body and triumphs of the spirit of coal miners everywhere, is a passionate performance piece that skillfully combines storytelling, movement, and the mournful tones of the cello to shed new light on an important subject. Out of the Dark, with its sometimes humorous and always deeply moving testimonies of mostly retired miners, many of whom are still “breathing” like they were still working deep in the mines, is haunting — a beautiful tribute to a heretofore neglected segment of society.
Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/index.htm.
Chapel Hill, NC-based Wordshed Productions, which specializes in the adaptation of literature for the stage and the production of original films, will present Out of the Dark: The Oral Histories of Appalachian Coal Miners, an original ethnographic adaptation written and directed by Hannah Blevins, April 29-May 1 in the Martha Nell Hardy Theater in Bingham Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Wordshed writes, “Out of the Dark is a collection of stories based on an Appalachian woman's recent ethnographic interviews with Virginia coal miners. The miners describe a relationship with the earth like no other — in love with this dangerous place, working in 36-inch crawl spaces hundreds of feet under the mountains, inhaling coal dust as they breathe in the mines, they say that mining gets into your blood. Growing up as proud third generation miners in a region stigmatized as dirty, stupid, and poor, these stories tell a different narrative of Appalachia through song, movement, cello music and storytelling. These narratives reveal how coal miners build community and identity in the mines and later come to terms with disabling injuries that force them to they leave the mines and communities they love.
“Out of the Dark is adapted and directed by Wordshed board member Hannah Blevins, who is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in Performance Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill…. [She] has previously adapted and directed ethnographic performances of Appalachian stories in Coming Home: Memories from the Heart of Appalachia and has co-adapted and directed the poetry of Coleridge and Yeats in Rime: Woman Bird and Beast.
“The cast features Wordshed company members Hannah Blevins, who recently appeared in Wordshed’s A Paradise It Seems (Chapel Hill and UK); Annissa Clark, who recently designed and directed the installation performance Embodying the Monster and appeared in StreetSigns’ As You Like It; and Shannon O’Neill, who is an instructor in Performance Studies at UNC-CH. The cast also features Elizabeth Nelson, who recently directed and starred in Snatchdragons: Burlesque Out of the Box and appeared in Wordshed’s Hemingway’s Men and Women: The Short Stories of Earnest Hemingway (Key West, FL), and Cristina Garcia, who majors in Performance Studies at UNC-CH. Cello accompaniment is by Susanna Branyon. The set design is by Rob Hamilton, with lighting design and stage direction by Leslie Stewart.
“Wordshed Productions, founded in 1998 and based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is dedicated to the research, development, and presentation of live theater, literary adaptations, oral histories, and cross cultural performances. Wordshed believes that the intimacy and immediacy of live performance offers an ideal medium for the exploration of literature for both audiences and creators. Wordshed is also dedicated to supporting up-coming artists working in theater and film.”
Wordshed Productions presents Out of the Dark: The Oral Histories of Appalachian Coal Miners Friday-Sunday, April 29-May 1, at 8 p.m. in the Martha Nell Hardy Theater, Bingham Hall Room 203, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $7 ($5 students, seniors, and UNC staff and employees). 919/969-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Wordshed Productions: http://www.unc.edu/wordshed/index.htm.