Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen discuss their documentary play "Coal Country" before and after its coronavirus cancellation.
On April 5, 2010, 29 miners were killed at the Upper Big
Branch Mine in West Virginia in the worst American mining disaster in the last
forty years. Ten years later, documentary theater-makers Jessica Blank and Erik
Jensen helped bring the stories of the families of those who died to life in Coal
Country at The Public Theater. That production, directed by Blank, ran from
February through mid-March before its abrupt cancellation due to citywide
precautions to address the coronavirus pandemic.
Coal Country grew out of four years of Blank and
Jensen’s work in collaboration with musician Steve Earle, drawing on over a
dozen interviews conducted in West Virginia with families affected by the
disaster. Weaving together those stories of individuals who lost loved ones
with musical interludes from a Storyteller portrayed by Earle, the play paints
a bigger picture of the corrosive effects of capitalism, as corporate greed
overruns mining safety precautions with impunity, leaving one community saddled
with a grief that continues to this day.
Blank and Jensen are a married couple known for their
documentary plays The Exonerated, about exonerated death row inmates,and Aftermath, which explored the experiences of Iraqi refugees
living in Jordan. They first gave interviews for this piece in early March, in
the weeks before and after the show closed.
Although he now lives in New York City, Jensen felt connected to the people he met in West Virginia due to his rural upbringing. “I grew up working poor, and then we clawed our way up to the working class. It was farm country Minnesota which is different, but the skill sets are not dissimilar, like knowing your way around machinery.” Speaking with Stanley “Goose” Stewart, one of the subjects of the play, felt familiar, “like he easily could’ve been one of my uncles or my next-door neighbor.”
While developing the play, Jensen’s father and uncle died
within weeks of one another. Mourning his relatives brought home the
devastation the West Virginia families went through. ”For the first time in my
life, I was feeling grief, and I multiplied that by 29 and my heart just about
couldn’t take it,” Jensen said.
In the face of a combative media, legal gag orders, and
sustained corporate pressure, the mining families struggled in the aftermath of
the disaster. This horrified Jensen.
“Them not being allowed the dignity of their grief really fucking upset me and that kept me going, because there’s something to be learned from people who are grieving,” Jensen said. “Engaging with the worst thing that ever happened to them and sharing that story with the world—that’s brave. I hope that we can afford them some of the dignity that wasn’t granted to them by these other individuals.”
Blank saw a clear need to bring these stories from rural
America to metropolitan areas like New York City. “In a lot of the communities
that I move in, there is a real othering of rural working-class people that
happens. I think that’s a big part of why we’re in the mess that we’re in as a
country.” In this play, she and Jensen saw an opportunity to transmit the
emotional experience of this story to people unfamiliar with the disaster and
help bridge the gap between those communities.
“On the most
basic levels, when you do theater right, grief is the same for everybody
regardless of what part of the country you live in. Loss is the same. Hope is
the same. We relate to all those things,” said Jensen. And while Blank
emphasized that theater doesn’t erase differences between people, she offered
the belief that theater can “create a container in which we can empathize
across differences and feel those connections.”
The play opened on Tuesday, March 3. The following Saturday was an immensely important day for the husband and wife team, as the West Virginian families depicted in Coal Country came to see the show. “The only things I can compare Saturday to were the first time that the exonerated folks came and saw The Exonerated, which was a similar kind of encounter, and the day our daughter was born,” said Blank.
The visit wasn’t without trepidation. As a team, Blank and
Jensen make a practice of not chasing interviews for the projects they
conceive, and only speak with people who are open to discussing their stories. It
was important to them that their subjects felt that they had been portrayed
faithfully. “I have a medical doctor’s version of myself as a writer, kind of a
‘do no harm’ thing,” said Jensen.
Fortunately, the day ended up being a positive experience. Although the families knew one another beforehand, some learned new information about the care their deceased loved ones received through seeing the show. Above all, the experience of seeing an audience of strangers relate to their loss was meaningful. “All of them said, ‘We thought nobody cared.’ It’s been almost ten years since this explosion happened and all this time they thought nobody outside of that immediate area cared,” said Jensen. “That’s just astonishing to me that we leave each other alone like that.”
The journey from
that cathartic encounter to closing only days later was whiplash-inducing. “There
is a rhythm and a cycle to the life of a play where you know you want it to
live a long, healthy life and have an idea that it’s coming to an end when it’s
coming to an end and be able to recognize and mark and ritualize that, say
goodbye—all of the ritualized nature of theater in that way is really important,”
Blank said. Cancellation in the middle of a run prematurely interrupted that
In a moment of profound uncertainty about the future of the
theater industry, Blank looked back to her experience of living through 9/11.
“I still remember that period of time when none of us was sure that anybody
would ever make theater again,” she said.
“You don’t know where the next step of the process is going
to come from, especially in times like this. I think that’s always true,” Blank
said. “We think we can predict it normally and then something like this forces
us into admitting that we don’t actually know what’s going to happen next.”
For Blank, the resilience of theater artists will be key
moving forward. “None of us are in it for the money. None of us are in it for
the leisurely hours. We’re in it because we love it and there’s a certain
toughness and resiliency that comes from doing this for a living. I think
theater folks are a community and community is really part of what creates
resiliency. And we’ll bounce back.”
Although it has been two months since the show was suspended, Blank and Jensen continue to push for Coal Country. “We’ve been entrusted with this extraordinary responsibility by these folks trusting us with their stories, and so it’s our responsibility to not fold our hands and go, ‘Well, theater’s on hold for a month so I guess we’re screwed and that’s it,’” said Blank. “We have to keep working with The Public Theater, to keep working with representatives, to keep working with other production companies to explore every avenue possible for getting this story out in the world, and not give up on that just because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
As the country begins to reopen, Coal Country’s
portrayal of the risks workers face under mounting economic pressures feels as
timely as ever. Since the play closed, Coal Country received several
Drama Desk Award nominations, which may help the show as its creators look
toward its future. The set remains standing in The Public Theater’s Anspacher
Theater. Blank and Jensen are exploring ways to convert the show into an audio
play, and Earle is releasing his album Ghosts
of West Virginia, including songs featured in Coal Country, on
On the tenth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster—a day when relatives would have gathered in person and Coal Country was scheduled to give its closing night performance—the country remained shut down. So, in lieu of closing, Earle played songs from the play on Facebook for Coal Country Quarantined, and the three co-creators released a tribute video from The Public Theater. Although the world had changed drastically from when they began this project, their message remained the same: “Your 29 men will never be forgotten.”
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