Fire on the Mountain is a history lesson/ docu-drama/ musical that tells a gripping story of Appalachian coal miners. This Bluegrass musical is also a heart pounding, feet stomping celebration of mountain people who had pride and character, even when they lost lives and livelihood.
And there’s fire on the mountain, lightnin’ in the air
Gold in them hills and it’s waitin’ for me there
Playwrights Randal Myler and Dan Weetman, creators of Broadway’s “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues”, weave a tapestry of life of the miner families in Appalachia. The production is based on the text of “Fire on the Mountain”, composed entirely from the authors’ interviews with coal miners and their families. Fabulous cast of Molly Andrews, Harvey Blanks, Nik Dugan, Karen Celia Hall, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus, Robert Parsons, Marie Shell and Harvy Yaglijian bring to life experiences of a miner wife, a child of a miner, a miner who goes blind in a mining accident and is then a mere “blind fiddler”, and others. Only authentic dialogue from interview transcripts and coal mining museum records are used, along with bluegrass rhythm, to bring to life this heart rending saga, woven around lives of men who spent six days a week, underground.
It’s dark as a dungeon
Damp as the dew
The danger is double
And the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls
Where the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine
And then there are playful songs like the one sung by a miner’s wife
When I was single my shoes they did squeak,
But now I am married my shoes they go leak.
O-o-oh, I wish I was a single girl,
O-o-oh, I wish I was a single girl again.
When I was single I dressed very fine,
But now I am married I go ragged all the time.
With a plethora of interesting and unique instruments including fiddle, banjo, mandolin, dobro, bass, and guitars, the music is exceptional. Prior to working underground in the mines, the Appalachian Indians earned their livelihood above ground, and made a farming community. The land was purchased from the miners’ gullible ancestors, for 25 cents an acre, by the Europeans, who descended from the North, in the 1700s. The newly purchased land extended for 200,000 square miles from New York to Northern Mississippi and was labeled “America’s first frontier”. Families living in self-sufficient farming communities, now rendered landless, were offered work in coal camps and were allowed to live there as tenants, forbidden to own any private property, and banned from purchasing anything from stores other than company owned stores on the site.
Coal companies’ abominable disregard for human life, led to the miners developing black lung and other diseases, and led to tragic accidents causing death of scores of miners. When the mines were finally closed, the destruction of the land made it useless for farming, and towns lay barren, as young people were driven to the cities, in search for work. As the show goes on, snippets from history are projected on two large screens hung on both sides of the stage. Kudos for staging and scenic design to Joe Ragey, Gregg Rehrig and Emily Anderson Wolf. When the miners finally begin to question the utter disregard for safety of the miners, after the tragic accident that led to scores of death and entombing others, the scenes of the strike, sorrowful dialogues, and powerful lyrics sung beautifully, all blend together and tug at the heart, on seeing how a proud community of people were driven to extinction.
Now some men pass with family around
And linens and blankets so clean
But seldom a miner goes underground
Without his tin of morphine
But now here’s a word, an explosion is heard
The miners are trapped far below
If any survived down there alive
I’m certain we never will know
Although our families have vainly appealed
No rescue attempt can be seen
Our hope for loved ones in the dark earth sealed
Now lies in a tin of morphine
Many thanks to Artistic Director Robert Kelley for bringing this priceless piece of history through the medium of brilliant and inspirational, sorrowful and joyous, boot stomping and heart-rending melodies. I select “Fire on the Mountain” playing till April, 26 at www.theatreworks.org as the must-see-play of this theater season in South Bay, CA.