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“FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN”
Kindled our hearts

By Iride Aparicio

Photos By: Kevin Berne

L-R  HARVY BLANKS, DAVID M LUTKEN KAREN CELIA HEIL
L-R  HARVY BLANKS, DAVID M LUTKEN KAREN CELIA HEIL
And ROBERT PARSONS, Center Front

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA --  We seldom hear about them in the news. They work in darkness, hidden from sight inside the bowels of the Appalachian Mountains. Every day their bodies get covered in coal dust, along with their faces and lungs. Who are they? They are the coal miners of West Virginia that we knew little about, until we saw FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, written  by RANDAL MYLER & DAN WHEETMAN, a bluegrass musical, Directed by MYLER, that may be called a Bluegrass Folk Opera, because its music is Bluegrass (the Appalachian music that has its roots of Scottish, Welsh and English tunes) and its stories, are presented in songs.

What this work shows the audience, is how it was to be a coal miner in Appalachia from many different points of view. From the point of view of the coal miner himself. From the point of view of his son From the point of view of his wife. How was life for those coal miners?  What did they do?  How do they lived? Where did they go? How did they celebrate Sundays?  The musical answers all these question in songs, with brief monologues spoken by one of the characters, or in duets, or choirs. Making the stories visual, are two projections on the back of the screen.

The cast of FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN Production of Theatre Works
  The cast of FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN Production of Theatre Works

What we learn, is that they may not be rich in material possessions, but they are rich in their relation with each other, with their families, and with God. They are proud of their heritage, love music, and have a dark sense of humor. They need it to survive their past. Most of them were farmers but their land was bought from their grandparents by “the people from the North” for 25 cents an acre.

The music in this musical is  “their music:” Similar to country music, part ballad, part blues, part anthems, Bluegrass pleasant songs American at their core. In rhythm and sound, their songs sound similar to those we hear in  “Square Dance” but they are not danced, in square patterns. When dancing, they use hand clapping and rousing feet stomps. And because all the actors in the work are good singers and masters in playing their different string instruments: guitars, base guitars, violins, violas, mandolins, and harmonica, all the music is played by the characters themselves, which re: MOLLY ANDREWS, HARVY BANKS, NIK DUGGAN, KAREN CELIA HEIL, DAVID M. LUTKEN, TONY MARCUS, ROBERT PARSONS, MARIE SHELL & HARRY YAGLIJIAN.

Their songs lyrics, lay bear their souls to the audience. Each lyric tells a story: A boy, whose dream is to become a miner and move from his 25 cents a day job to the jo of a “trapper” which pays more, to the position where a pick will be placed on his hand, and he will be called a “a miner,” and his pay will be raised to $1.60 a day. A miner who defines mining as “seeking your fortune in the dark dungeon where Blacks, Italians and Americans work together because they can not see the differences in each other". A woman who tells us that before she got marry she was warned by her family that if he marry a miner  he will be a widow in a very short time. Another miner who complains of being treated worse than the mules. "If a man dies, “ he said “they can easily replace him for another miner, but if a mules dies, they have a buy another one.” And there is a father, who aware of the danger in mining, tells his son who wants to become a miner, to go back to school. There are many more stories and more songs.

L-R DAVID M. LUTKEN and NIK DUGGAN
L-R DAVID M. LUTKEN and NIK DUGGAN

Some of the songs’ titles are: “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Loading Coal” “Been in the storm so long” “Black Lung” “Black Waters” “Miner’s Lament”  “Miner’s Prayer” “Sprinkle black Coal on My Grave.”

The lyrics in each song make the audience aware of the living conditions of these miners. Coal is typically mined in remote mountainous areas of this country and at the time of the story, these miners lived in crude housing provided at low cost by their company. They bathe only once a week, and when they do, their bodies had to be scrubbed because they are covered by sticky black dust. Sadly, the constant contact with this coal dust, also causes Pneumoconiosis or “Black Lung” in many of them, when their body becomes unable to removed the inhaled dust from their lungs, causing in them a chronic bronchitis that lasts many years and kills them at the end.

And with the telling of  different moments in their lives interpreted with music and songs the show moves, from happy times to a tragedy, because  we ought to remember that mining has always been dangerous. There could be roof cave-ins at any moment and Methane gas explosions. Yet, because of the tragedy, there is strike and when the strike is settled, a Union that improved their work conditions.

HARVY BLANKS representing an striking miner 
HARVY BLANKS representing an striking miner

And with songs, music and dances this remarkable show describes  the lives, and hardships of some of  the 23 Million residents of the Appalachian region which extends from southern New York to northern Mississippi. And as we hear  the true stories of real coal miners, living in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, who were interviewed to write the lyrics of the songs, and as we hear the lyrics we learn a little more about them.

And with song after song FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN moves us from the Past into the Present. So, as we watch the show, we suddenly become, aware of the rich tapestry of America. We get a better understanding of those who work in mining, and we started caring for them. It was as if a little spark of that coal they mine, kindled a fire in our hearts.

FIRE ON THE MOUNTIAN  is making its Regional premier in THEATRE WORKS SILICON VALLEY where it will be presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. in Mountain View, until April 26. For tickets go to:
http:/theatreworks.org of call 650-463-l960.