When money and wealth become more important than the lives of others, that is the time to write a play with powerful, sonorous music. Oh, not to uplift the CEOs who collect the millions like Don Blankenship of Massey owned Performance Coal Company. No. The play should uplift and memorialize the ones who die because of that CEO’s greed, selfishness and refusal to accept accountability for what many have called murder. Above all the play must repudiate the wealthCy’s Puritan assertions that money and power make right. They don’t. Not now, not ever.
Coal Country is a docu-drama with incredibly relevant themes for us today. The riveting, masterful work written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle in a fabulous encore presentation by Audible and the Public Theater seems more impactful each time it is presented. We can never get enough of this exceptionally performed, shining work which runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre until 17 of April.
Though the worst of human nature asserts its primacy, poignant, moving stories like those in Coal Country are timeless in revealing that love despite tragedy culturally work us toward enlightenment. The voices of those who have been wrongfully snuffed out can resonate with meaning. This is especially so when fine artists like Blank, Jensen, Earle and superb performers effect those voices to channel the great moral imperative. What is good, what is true, what is valuable is never lost. It lives on.
The themes which the playwrights and songwriter ring out in Coal Country focus on the devastating catastrophe known as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, which cost 29 West Virginians their lives. Through family eye-witness accounts cobbled together in a tapestry of poetic beauty, vitality and grace, we learn the facts about the huge machine that operated over- capacity 24/7 on the long wall, sheering off the finest, most valuable coal so Blakenship could get his contract percentage of the mine’s earnings of $650,000 a day.
We learn through the accounts of union miners like Tommy (Michael Laurence), Gary (Thomas Kopache), and “Goose” (Joe Jung), how and why government inspectors never found the broken systems that allowed low oxygen levels to increase the build-up of methane gases and thick coal dust that caused the massive explosion. As the experienced miners relate how the broken sprinklers ineffectively doused the sparks created in machine operations that ignited the coal dust and methane behind the long wall, the final picture of egregious negligence and rapacious lust for money clarifies in the blood of innocents merged with the blood of family bonds.
Tommy, Laurence and Gary discuss how the power of the union to protect and respect the miners’ rights in the past has been subverted by the CEO and company, and government de-regulation. The owners who bought the mine hired a large percentage of non-union men, who didn’t dare “speak up,” to government inspectors and the FBI about extremely unsafe conditions in the mine. They feared reprisals. The question of payoffs arises and dead ends. We learn how those miners who did “say something” were warned and ignored. Miners were rendered voiceless against the inevitability of their deaths, because Blankenship was on a mission. No one was going to stop him.
As families identify bodies on blankets on the gravel, some collapse. Roosevelt (Ezra Knight) who identifies his father, who appears to be “asleep,” remains calm until his mother comes. They weep together. As others express outrage, the families of four missing men wait to hear whether or not their loved ones cheated death. Finally, the wait is over. None make it out. Tommy, who loses his son, his nephew and his father, waits to spill the news, overcome with pain.
Judy (Deidre Madigan), a doctor who lost her brother in the catastrophe rides a roller coaster of emotional expectation. First, she believes her brother died. Then she believes he found refuge. Then, all is finality. She describes that she feels she is an outsider because of her socioeconomic status. But emotion and love transcend economics; she is one of them. Her brother is dead and though the medical examiner tells her not to, she insists on seeing his remains. It is ironic that even her medical background does not prepare her for what the mine did to him. It is beyond calculation. In pieces, her brother is without human form.
One by one seven family members tell their story of a simple, satisfying life before the catastrophe in a community that mined for generations. Indeed, the mountain supported and nurtured them until it was bought over by Massey Energy and a new CEO came to town. We learn of the loving relationships between Mindi (Amelia Campbell) and Goose, and Patti (Mary Bacon) and Big Greg who dies leaving Little Greg traumatized by the loss of his dad and Patti when he is taken away from her. And interspersed with their stories, Steve Earle’s country ballads lyrical and poignant drive home the resonance of their love and remembrances of their dear ones. They live in his songs and echo in the actors’ mesmerizing performances.
Blank and Jensen (the husband-wife team who created The Exonerated), choose to present this dynamic piece as a flashback after Earle (playing guitar), opens with two songs that set the themes: “John Henry,” and Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Cleverly, the action begins in the courtroom at the end of Don Blakenship’s trial as Judge Berger (Kym Gomes), states they cannot read their “Victim Impact Statements.” What family could never speak in court, they relate to the court of public opinion (the audience who sees this play).
The flashback comes full circle back to the court, so the audience hears Blankenship only gets one year in jail and a fine of $250,000. Arrogantly, Blankenship uses that money to run Ads and create pamphlets in which he characterizes himself as the victim of government as a “political prisoner.” Nevertheless, in final, moving encomiums, each family member details how they remember their loved ones who live on in their hearts and in this production which has called. out to music the names of all who died in the UBB mine explosion.
With minimalist but trenchant symbolic Scenic Design (Richard Hoover), effective Lighting Design (David Lander), Sound Design (Darron L West) and Costume Design (Jessica Jahn), Coal Country is an amazing revival. It is profound and memorable in scope and power. Don’t miss it this time around. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/coal-country
Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is a hybrid drama-mystery, a thriller with sly, humorous overtones. As usual the playwright’s particular and complex characterizations startle with their humanity and angst. And the myriad themes that Rebeck tackles in Downstairs reverberate with currency.
Directed with acute precision and depth by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and starring siblings Tyne Daly and Tim Daly as well as John Procaccino, Downstairs is a tour-de-force about relationships, wickedness masking as truth, second chances, hope, and the interior and unseen ebb and flow that happens in all evolving souls.
Written especially for the Daly siblings, the play exudes cleverness and wry import. She opens the intriguing story on the trash-heap of an unfinished basement, a workshop cellar with a couch and a few tables. Teddy (Tim Daly’s strikingly alive portrayal uplifts with power) emerges from the bathroom. As he carries on with the morning ritual of waking up, making coffee, and brushing his teeth, we understand that he has slept in the basement and is perhaps living there. Then Irene (the exquisitely versatile Tyne Daly, who is just extraordinary in this portrayal of the mousey, oppressed wife) comes down the basement steps and confronts him. She attempts to understand why he needs to be staying in their cellar.
From their conversation Rebeck reveals their prior estrangement and background circumstances since their mother died some years before. Notably, the forthright Teddy reveals his upset that their mother left Irene with the inheritance, which he deems unfair. They fill their discussion with questions that neither quite answers. Irene refuses to discuss how Teddy became disinherited. This exchange unsettles us. Their tense interplay appears shows us siblings who at this juncture cannot be described as showing good will toward each other.
Nevertheless, as they continue Teddy discloses that he has been poisoned by malevolent people at work. His truthful admission, though bizarre, opens Irene’s heart. She shifts from being defensive to accepting her brother’s plight and wanting to help him.
Throughout these initial exchanges, we make assumptions about Teddy’s mental and emotional condition and life’s circumstances. Evasive and scattered, he appears to have suffered a breakdown. Surely, he faces a crossroads in his life, especially if his sanity remains in question. But the brilliance of Downstairs is that nothing is what it appears to be. Neither the situation, the characters, nor the development of the conflicts play out the way we anticipate. Rebeck takes us for a dangerous ride fraught with suspense which remains far from the mundane family story we thought we had signed up for.
For example, the reconciliation between Irene and Teddy after their mother died is anything but mundane. Irene’s marriage and financial situation, which initially appear comfortable, normal, and steady, are a deception for numerous reasons that Rebeck reveals with adroit, painstaking details of characterization. We become enlightened about Teddy’s erratic “craziness” and quirky genius. And the estranged relationship between the siblings has little to do with each of them. Indeed, as the present veneers slip away and they connect with their deeper emotions, we discover the real culprit of their alienation.
Their inner emotions drive the energy and action. The actors craft their portrayals so carefully and sensitively, we identify and hope for Irene and Teddy. As they confess their truths to each other, Teddy listens and supports Irene’s confrontation of the lies within herself so she may heal. In her evolution, enlightenment, self-deception, and growth, Tyne Daly’s Irene soars. Her gradual empowerment with Teddy’s help thrills and engages us. Tim Daly’s Teddy displays individuality, bravery, and truth that can call down deception, corruption, and evil, uplifting us. Together, they beautifully manifest their eventual understanding that the ties that once bound them can be reconstituted. And this is so even though the world and the wicked have worked overtime to break their spirits and wreck their souls.
John Procaccino’s amazing portrayal of Gerry, Irene’s husband, creates the perfect foil for Irene and Teddy. He inhabits Gerry with sensitivity, finding the character’s motivation without going for result. Procaccino’s mastery of Gerry’s sinister presence is authentic and believable. This is not a spoiler. You will just have to see Downstairs to marvel at how these superlative actors work together to breathe life into Irene, Teddy, and Gerry.
In this wonderful production, the unexpected peeks around the corner of every scene. By degrees the story goes through many turns and twists. The more the truth of Irene’s marriage is revealed to her by Teddy, the more open she becomes with her brother and he with her. Rebeck gradually unfolds the mysteries. In the last scenes we finally understand what has separated them from the love they once held for each other.
Throughout this tautly suspenseful work, the playwright captures seminal themes. These include women’s empowerment, familial love, the vitality of childhood bonds, and the saving grace of compassion and goodness. There are numerous messages that echo for us today in the cultural morass between reality and fabrication, truth and lies, visibility and invisibility. I especially enjoyed the moment-to-moment, slow reveal of the struggle between good and evil, enlightenment and cover-up, and the extent to which we betray ourselves with self-deception. The title symbolizes and brings together many of these rich them
Downstairs is a must-see for the sterling performances and for Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s directorial craft. Each of these sends you to the edge of your seat and equally touches your heart. Look for the profundities that will wash over you long after you have left the Cherry Lane Theatre. Kudos also go to Narelle Sissons (Set Design), Sarah Laux (Costume Design), Michael Giannitti (Lighting Design), M.L. Dogg (Sound Design), and Leah Loukas (Wig Design).
Downstairs, a Primary Stages presentation, runs through 22 December at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Tickets are available online
The U.S. has been at war for more than a decade. In that time period lives have been lost for a cause that many question and that more feel was trumped up to justify the monetary benefit of an elite few, oil barons, as well as the lords of war and those supporting and fueling the military industrial complex. The casualties who have died for a cause that St. Thomas Aquinas would not have labeled just for its length of continuance, mismanagement and malfeasance are at peace. Those casualties who have remained alive and are scarred physically and emotionally are legion.
Many who have returned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now number in the hundreds of thousands. Statistics suggest that only half of them have sought treatment. There are many wounded warriors and returning vets who do not go for help because they feel therapies offered are ineffective. They remain hopeless and feel victimized by a government that is uncaring and callous and a culture that is indifferent, fatuous and ignorant. Oftentimes, their emotional state and symptoms of anger, drinking, drugging, hyper aggression, depression, anxiety, jumpiness, sleeplessness, restiveness spill out on their family, spouses and children. If coaxed to seek help, the suggestion is ignored or provokes an angry response. The tragedy is that PTSD is never eliminated. However, there is hope if a wounded warrior seeks help. Chances are with the right type of sustained assistance from a network of individuals using a variety of therapies, PTSD will be mitigated. One only has to reach out.
This is easier said then done. The problem, then, is not being at war, it is coming home from the war, forever. Such is the subject of Charles Fuller’s play, One Night which opens to a World Premiere in NYC on November 6th. The Cherry Lane Theatre commissioned the play and the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of A Soldier’s Play answered the call. The play delivers a powerful and important message that we must be alerted to. For our men and women veterans are returning home but what are they returning to? A life of meaning and purpose, or one of emptiness and continual anxiety, stress, dislocation and fury?
Certainly, if they have seen combat, have seen their buddies sharded or incinerated by mines and explosive, have seen themselves or others losing limbs, if they have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury or worse, have walked away unscathed physically, only to labor under delusive aftershocks of heightened oppression, guilt, flashbacks, suicidal/violent thoughts and more, they are experiencing PTSD.
How do they cope? Will they seek help or slip into the convenient or overlooked statistic? One Night covers all of this and shadows how a woman responds in recompense to an unjust act effected by soldiers, themselves suffering from an inability to deal with their own trauma to act humanely. The sufferers unload onto the perceived weaker sex and the woman like many women who serve in the U.S. military ends up battling an additional enemy ones wearing the same uniform. War turns men and women against each other eliciting the worst in times of stress. It can happen in many times during a decade, it can happen “one night,” but if it happens woe to all it happens to.
The World Premiere of One Night is being presented by the Cherry Lane Theatre and the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
One Night directed by Clinton Turner Davis will be at the Cherry Lane Theatre from November 6 to December 15.
Mon and Tues at 7 pm., Thurs and Fri. at 8 pm, Sat. at 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun. at 3 pm.
Grantham Coleman, K.K. Moggie, Matthew Montelongo, Cortez Nance Jr., Rutina Wesley
Set John McDermott, Costumes Jessica Jahn, Lighting Nicole Pearce, Sound Sean O’Halloran, Video Gil Sperling, Fights UnkleDave’s Fight-House, Props Starlet Jacobs, Stage Manager C. Renee Alexander, Assistant Stage Manager Kristin Pfeifer
Running time is 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission.
FOR TICKETS CLICK HERE.
5% of ticket proceeds benefit IAVA, the first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Learn more and support the Next Greatest Generation at IAVA.org.
The Paradigm Shift
The long needed paradigm shift for authors is here. Like never before, successful writers of all genres are available to their fans and others as many discard traditional publishing routes that were profitable to everyone but the writer. Self-publishing and direct to the source return the profits back to authors. As social media, blogs and e-zines trump traditional media, and streaming (House of Cards) Youtube (plays and shows) and Google Hangouts (live music shows) become widespread, TV venues that formerly preyed upon the division between the creator and the passive audience are dying. It’s about interactivity. As a result writers are relying on interactions with followers on Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, etc., to promote and sell their work, engage their readers and update them on their latest triumphs. To remain current, they must stir the pot and trouble the waters of innovation and artistry. How else can they benefit from the currents of cultural resplendence? If they don’t connect, they will eventually be choked off as is happening to old line venues for the cultural arts.
Authors Stay Juiced Through Workshops and Master Classes
Another way noted writers are connecting is by giving back in workshops, conferences and master classes. It is particularly rewarding when brilliant authors are sure footed guides who can shepherd their fellow writers up the mountain of difficulties regarding word-craft to unlock inspiration. Fluid workshops are settings which inspire writers to share their work without fear. They encourage spontaneous, authentic writing. They help authors learn new techniques and allow them to bathe in the creative flow of juiced writing.
Three noted writers and authors whose workshops and classes I took in the last months were particularly helpful and each was extremely generous. David Henry Hwang, successful Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright, Nick Flynn, poet and memoirist, and Rosary O’Neill, playwright, screenwriter and diverse author reached into their bounty of spirit and shared liberally. Reflecting back on the process with these exceptional writers, I now see that the exchanges and connections offered unique experiences that are helping me hone my craft and provide direction for my writing projects.
MASTER CLASS WITH DAVID HENRY HWANG at the Cherry Lane Theatre in NYC
I absolutely adore this man, this stunning screenwriter, librettist and multiple award-winning playwright best known for M Butterfly, Yellow Face and Chinglish. I have seen much of his work on Broadway and Off Broadway. The first time I saw M Butterfly (I saw it twice.) starring John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, I remember telling my cousins after the performance that it was a happening. Thrilling and alive, it was like seeing Venice for the first time or tasting my first sip of vintage wine from a bottle that cost more than $150. Poor similes, I grant you, but I was gobsmacked. Taking this class with him I was anxious to understand his technique. I had seen his development and knew early works like Dance in the Railroad. I and was looking forward to seeing his Kung Fu at the Signature Theatre in March of 2014. What would he share?
The writers/students in the master class with David Henry Hwang were at various stages in their writing careers; their backgrounds were motley. Wang enjoys people and he interacted with us after getting a general feel for this large group who was there to breathe the same air as this multiple award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee. He of course, is unassuming, disarming and a sponge of humility you could just hug and squeeze. Despite the large numbers in the group, David Henry Hwang put us at ease and somehow created an intensity and intimacy during the session, a talent in itself.
Move toward the unconscious.
The master playwright encouraged us to continually transcend the conscious mind and write frequently, overriding our conscious censor. For example, when thinking “I’m not good enough,” or “Why should anyone care about what I’m writing,” that is the nihilistic self-critic. Inspire yourself and unblock using various techniques; some suggestions are below.
- Silence the censor by writing as fast as you can. You can always go back and edit.
- Cut out phrases from a magazine article and shuffle them into various sequences. Copy a phrase or two priming the pump until it’s flowing. Don’t stop until there is a natural pause.
- Write out words in free association. Put them in a hat and choose various ones that continue the associations. Write continually and automatically. Follow where the writing leads you; don’t lead it.
- Of course, David Henry Want suggested to always write what inspires and keeps your interest. The more you have fallen in love with what you are writing about the better.
- Allow yourself to give your characters free reign. They will lead you to amazing places that you never new were possible on the journey.
NICK FLYNN’S MEMOIR AS BEWILDERMENT at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY
Nick Flynn is a poet and best-selling memoirist. He wrote The Reenactments, The Ticking Is the Bomb, and the haunting and beautiful best seller, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which was published as Being Flynn, the title of the independent film based on the book. The film stars Robert DiNero and Paul Dano. Flynn’s three books of poetry are The Captain Asks For a Show of Hands, Some Ether, and Blind Huber. I was familiar with his memoir Another Bullshit Night... and liked his style of writing. During the two day workshop, Nick Flynn was generous answering questions about the making of the film (it took seven years) and his writing life. He challenged us, attempting to jar our sensibilities into the unusual because only then could the chaffing break us into the realm of the unexpected to authenticity. As we wrote and shared our writings, elements he uses in his own writing resonated deeply. His wonderful humor carried us through any nervousness.
Use image and object chains from various sources.
- Flynn encouraged us toward selecting images and objects threading them in our work. Images carry emotional power and weight. These are tied to associations from our unconscious that have meaning beyond what we may not recognize consciously.
- Write down dreams and the images will more naturally appear to us. Incorporate images or objects in automatic writing which should be spontaneous and unedited.
- The writing muscle should be exercised each day, a minimum of seven minutes. Write ceaselessly allowing the flow and trusting it to take you wherever. Dare to risk the journey, the more bewildered the better. Eventually rationality through the concrete image emerges.
- Create moments of surprise and use them in writing. Look for a science article (NY Times, perhaps) that is filled with images or objects and write about one that has energy and interest. Look through old pictures. List three questions about the people or objects in the photos. Write on each for 7 minutes. Incorporate the results in your work then edit later what doesn’t sing. You’re practicing powerful description and your technique will be enhanced overall with your writing projects.
ROSARY O’NEILL’s SCRIPTWRITING WORKSHOP at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY
Rosary O’Neill, Ph.D. is a playwright, director, screenwriter, writer of narrative nonfiction and a scholar who hails from New Orleans. She was the founding artistic director at Southern Rep Theatre where her plays about family with Southern Gothic themes were produced for many years. A prolific writer and virtual dynamo who has received 7 Fullbrights, and fellowships to the Norman Mailer House, Tyrone Guthrie Centre and other venues, she has studied abroad where she has completed research for a play about John Singer Sargent and a book and play about Degas, to name a few works. With extensive experience in acting and theatre production, she has written The Actor’s Checklist, is currently working on a soon to be published book with new information never before revealed about the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Rosary O’Neill has written 22 plays. Most have been published by Samuel French. Many of them have been performed at the Southern Rep and many have garnered readings at the National Arts Club, the Rattlestick Theatre, The Players Club and in regional theaters like The Westchester Collaborative Theatre and Bard College. Her latest work, an uplifting musical entitled Broadway or Bust with lyrics/music by David Temple, directed by Deborah Temple will be performed at Bard College Black Box Theatre, November 13th and 15th. She has written a TV series entitled Heirs that that is currently being shop optioned. An experienced college professor, Rosary’s class was a joy and steered folks in a different direction, toward writing characters that live and are breathing and vital. This is playwriting/screenwriting at its best.
Sound character when creating dialogue.
- When writing characters, think of individuals you know, their high points and dramatic episodes. Ask yourself why you remember them; what strikes you about them? Give yourself a prompt that you think might help you distill who they are in an image, then write about them. Eventually, this can be worked into creating character.
- Read all dialogue aloud. Make sure it sings. If you are bored and don’t wish to read it, have someone else read it aloud. If it doesn’t resonate to you or the other individual, then drop it and move your inspiration elsewhere.
- Select a scene where there have been family get-togethers. Dialogue should reveal differences in character, cadences, phrases, accents, content. How are you revealing tonal messages through speech? Act out the lines. What doesn’t fit, jettison.
- Remain upbeat at all times. Shun negative thoughts. Do you have anything better to do with your life than to create life, through characters, dialogue and plays/films? All dialogue has run through you at one point or another. You are recalling it to your remembrance and shifting it around for greater use. Above all, enjoy the experience.
PARTING SHOTS: David Henry Hwang, Nick Flynn, Rosary O’Neill
DHH- Find a way to have your plays read aloud, even if you are getting actors in your living room. It’s the only way to find out if the characters cohere, if the whole thing works.
NF-Only submit your finest work, your best, work, the stuff you’ve edited and crafted and you still find vibrant after reading it 100 or more times. If you don’t want to read what you’ve written, then put a red line through it and circle it. Cut it out. You’re bored with it, others will be too.
RO-Spend a lot of time editing and revising. The work must pop, the dialogue must sing. If it doesn’t, you’ve overwritten. It’s too long. Cut, cut, cut, but still be logical and make sense. You can always add. The editing is hard, but vital to great writing.
All of them: Keep on writing!