Fire on the Mountain Directed by Randal Myler, Written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Seattle Repertory Theatre, February 22-March 24, 2007
Fine, says the Seattle Rep. So a play about an African-American math professor who is out of touch with his heritage didn't thrill you, eh? So how about YOUR Heritage?
What heritage? I could easily reply, smirking. I grew up in a suburb.
But the suburb was in Pittsburgh, which I always imagined as the north-west tip of the sweeping coalfields of Appalachia. Its not, really, the mountain range and the fields reach further north and west, but in that urban hub, it felt like the mountains ended there.
To go even further, mentally, the Pennsylvanian coal fields ended underneath Foster Public School. My father always said you could stand in the school's basement, and hear the ring of the picks through the walls from not-too-distant mines. And yeah, the region was crisscrossed with underground passages following the seams.
So yeah, I am influenced by the region. Coal dust is not an admixture to my blood - my ancestors worked oilfields and lumbermills, schools and banks, and many, many farms. But still, I am influenced, and when I came into the theater and saw the stage bedecked with, among other things, a sign for the Peabody Coal Company, I gave a small nod.
And soon afterwards the performance reached up and thwacked me hard. It is musical revue, the type that the Rep puts on every other year or so. Light on the plot, heavy on the music, and the music was out of the hills. Bluegrass mixed with blues mixed with ballads mixed with union songs. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle (don't even think of calling it a violin). Good strong voices. And yeah, it drew me in. The history, the buyouts, the lack of safety and environmental regs, the unions. All in the songs.
And when they started in the first chords of Paradise, I knew I was doomed. I had played that song when I was a lad (It was a John Denver special - you only had to learn three chords). And it was cathartic. And by cathartic I mean I wept like a child and sang softly along.
No, I don't have a lot of coal dust in my veins, but I have somewhere along the line picked up a miner's sensibility for work and relying on one's coworkers. And a nasty suspicion of large organizations, and a nastier suspicions of those where the decision makers are nowhere near those doing the work. Which has, over the years, served me pretty well. And so I connected, and connected more strongly than in most plays, on a basic emotional level.
The ensemble of singers and musicians was strong, their voices ringing from the mountaintops. "Mississippi Charles Bevel" (his credit comes complete with quote marks) and co-creator Dan Wheetman were particularly good. The staging was bits of coalyard memories, with two large projection screens, but the flashed images did not overwhelm the music, which was the star of the production.
What plot there was served well as a history of the mountains, though for the most of the time it felt trapped in the mid-20th as far as look and feel, so that when one character shows up at the end as a modern miner (Teflon helmet, one-piece jump, breathing mask), he looks like something out Disney's Tomorrowland. And a bit forgetful that we've been losing miners over the past few years due to some folk don't think we need to enforce mine safety laws anymore. Just because a revue wraps up on an up note doesn't mean the battle is won.
But the music was heavenly, and enough to make a boy from Western Pennsylvania weep. So I did.
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,
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