‘Coal Country’ Theater Review: A Steve Earle Musical With a Huge Carbon Footprint

A new show digs coal because, hey, somebody’s got to do life’s dirty work and destroy the planet

coal country
Photo: Joan Marcus

Since climate change is really a hoax, it’s time to celebrate all those hardworking coal miners in West Virginia with a new musical. “Coal Country” opened Tuesday at the Public Theater, and it’s a wonder what shows we can expect next: “Fracking!”, “Roundup Weed Killer: The Musical” or “Smith & Wesson Has Our Back”?

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s book for “Coal Country” takes the position that everything in West Virginia was great as long as a strong union guaranteed good wages and gave miners a relatively safe working environment so they could produce a form of energy that will make human life extinct in the next century. But then unfettered capitalism reared its head. It always does. The miners lost their union. They weren’t paid so well. And faster than you can say “Greta Thunberg,” a coal mine exploded, killing 29 workers.

Blank directs a book that has eight actors telling us true stories about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010. Not even the trial where the surviving workers sued the mining company is dramatized. “Let me tell you” is repeated so often that you will want to scream back, “No, don’t tell me!” That’s the other thing about “Coal Country.” The actors never stop screaming or yelling or crying or stomping their feet or slamming benches against the stage floor for dramatic effect. They’re really steamed up, because they love their land and the land loved them back until that darned greedy capitalist named Mr. Blankenship came along and didn’t pay them much for spewing even more fossil fuel into the atmosphere.

The only quiet moments in this musical come when Steve Earle performs some of his mournful country tunes. He gently strums his guitar, never slams his feet against the floor, and only once does his gravely voice rise above mezza voce. It’s when he sings “Union, God & Country” and we’re all ordered to sing along and find the silver lining in coal. Anyone who doesn’t sing, we’re told, will be called a “scab.” I don’t like audience participation, but this is the first time I’ve had to endure audience harassment.

Near the end of “Coal Country,” an actor tells us that “we’re all addicted to electricity,” so everybody’s guilty. Indeed, but some people are more guilty than others — and that includes coal miners and factory workers who make guns, cigarettes and other toxic stuff. Hearing these miner characters sob and scream about their terrible lives, I could only wonder how many of them went on to vote for Donald Trump just because, like them, he digs coal.