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Theater's long-running poverty conundrum

Down, home: Scripts in rags and coal dust 

Theater's long-running poverty conundrum

Deeply ambivalent about the folks down home? You're not alone: So is the theater. In the last two weeks, major regional and collegiate shows have greeted the people, the places, the history--and even in a couple of instances, the present--back home with everything from curatorial reverence to a dead bead with a loaded gun. Productions with roughly equivalent degrees of earnestness have celebrated the work of prairie women from a century and a half ago, and trailed present-day Virginia coal workers down into the mines. One has lampooned that sacred small-town institution, the beauty pageant, while another has all but stooped to the torture of small animals in its open mockery of--what's that colorful phrase again?--poor white trash caught in a Darwinian cul-de-sac just outside Dallas.

Despite their good (or ill) intent, none of these visions entirely lacks acuity--or limit, for that matter.

Quilters, the season-closer at Deep Dish Theater, observes that the women of the first Anglo-European families settling in the Midwest in the mid-1800s encoded some of their most important life experiences in an intriguing visual rebus of original patterns on hand-stitched comforters and blankets.

But Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek's script demonstrates that the same recycling techniques that produce good quilts don't necessarily make for satisfying theater. When strips from old wedding dresses and worn clothing are cut and reconfigured into striking new designs, the resulting unexpected reinterpretation by collage is leavened by a comforting sense of historical continuity.

But when Newman and Damashek do the same things to their characters--using snips from a number of different women to form over-homogenized composites--Quilters loses dramatic focus. Instead of encountering a single woman or family, we're faced with the creators' ideas of Everywoman, Everywife and Everychild--accompanied too frequently by an unsurprising vagueness in individual detail.

The exceptions to this are vivid and refreshing. Disgusted by her sibling's saccharine but popular "Sunbonnet Sue" quilts, a sister presents her with a quilt whose patterns predict the later work of Edward Gorey. Women at a later quilting bee convey more than one hidden message in their patterns to the desirable but trifling male recipient.

In one harrowing scene, a woman calmly numbers each child she bore. Audience members who gasped at the number seven--"Benjamin"--groaned when the count reached 14, 15 and 16, miscarriages all. While the numbers mount, other women in fear for their lives look for medical relief before being forced to rely on an appalling "home remedy."

In each of these cases, the actors are actually allowed to lock onto specific characters, situations and scenes long enough to convince us of their truth. But since the playwrights mistakenly attempt to cover as much of the prairie woman's experience as possible, they remain in the minority. For the rest, an unenviable cast is forced to dive into characters and scenes with little or no preamble--and then abandon them just as abruptly--in a work that's more cavalcade than it ever is a play.

Slam segues delve into unintentional humor: Apropos of nothing, an actor playing a cow, skinned after it has frozen to death, starts singing "Smile in the Face of Sorrow," providing our first inkling that a scene is changing. This, after director Paul Frellick asks three women to pretend to be those cows by lurching, bent over, across designer Kim DeCoste's stage, with what seem to be army blankets on their backs. In another hokey development, a pregnant woman gives birth, not to a baby, but to a section of the quilt. Poor modern dance fails to grace a final sequence.

Musically talented actors do their best to transcend such moments with Damashek's accompanying score. But when script and production difficulties render its passages unconvincing, too often Quilters seems more a didactic, medicinal public education presentation than a credible work of drama.

By contrast, playwright/ethnographer Hannah Blevins arguably does her subjects and her audience the greatest good in her new work, Out of the Dark, by putting both in the same workplace. Imagine a crawlspace smaller than the average office table, 26-28 inches high. Make it a tunnel, one running several hundred football fields in length.

Now place it three miles beneath a mountain.

In the little light available here, introduce the black coal dust that ultimately coats all surfaces, including the interior of your lungs. Bring the damp and the condensation, drop by drop, from the rivers, lakes and aquifers that lie above you. Cover the roof with a gray-white powder that reduces the threat of an explosion--but causes silicosis in its place. Silicosis, which makes you feel like you've inhaled a bunch of small glass needles that stick your ribcage every single time you breathe.

Got all that? Good. Now, don't imagine working there for eight hours.

Imagine 30 years instead.

You can't convince me that Blevins doesn't know her subjects--a group of injured, retired and still-continuing third-generation coal workers in present-day Wise and Lee counties in southwest Virginia. They emerge unambiguously in the interviews she's conducted.

And you can't convince me that her subjects don't know--intimately--the minute changes in sound, air and feel that signal the difference between a "safe" work space and a mountain of rock about to descend. A miner who is not constantly, literally in touch with the changing thing he is inside is not a likely candidate for long-term survival.

One described touching rock to distinguish different levels of stress "like reading Braille."

I believe him: He has gone into the underworld. He has emerged from it again. But he has been physically changed in the process.

It's odd that I know all this, without doubt, when I have never actually met or seen these people in person. Instead, I've seen three actors playing them--with unimpeachable authority--in the company of a strong ensemble.

A remarkable performance by Elizabeth Nelson gave austere dignity to Steve Austin, a minor too injured to continue work. Blevins herself convincingly enacted Earl Scott, a kindly but direct elder miner trying to explain to an outsider what's what two miles below, while Shannon O'Neill had Jimmy Castle relive the death of her mother, "Cat" Counts, the first woman miner to be killed in a mine explosion in Virginia.

In each case, under Blevins' direction, the actors characterized their subjects in interviews without melodrama or fuss. Together they demonstrated that the miners who live longest neither disregard nor overstate the constant subtexts of danger and loss. Instead they address them, squarely, honestly, and move on. At least, for as long as they can.

Over the years I've harbored fundamental doubts about the ethics involved in performance ethnography and the collection of oral history. Too often, the role of researcher or collector has been granted an assumed intellectual, aesthetic or moral superiority in comparison to their subjects--an elevation more befitting curators in entomology than any branch of the humanities.

By contrast, Blevins depicts in this performance a researcher who is clearly being schooled. Her performance makes the point, repeatedly, that the bodies of the miners, and the "body" of the mine itself, are places where there is terrible--and expensive--information that is unobtainable through other sources.

As the miners' stories unfold, it is clear that a world beyond the researcher's imagining is opening up as well. As she draws nearer to the closest of home truths, she enables us to draw closer to them as well. This, for a group of people routinely dismissed as the most backward of Americans, does a service to them and us both.

But even with all its disclosure, Blevins' work ultimately stops short of activism in a way that raises an ethical concern.

By the end of Out of the Dark, Blevins has convinced me that, since 55 percent of electricity in the United States comes from coal, my direct relationship with these miners is reinforced every time I hit a light switch, use my computer, cook or watch TV.

The testimony is clear. Each day they work in conditions that challenge the conscience even more than they challenge the imagination. What the miners breathe in ultimately disables and kills far too many of them. Some of the most significant dangers they face can be avoided.

So I'm troubled when a production manages to comment on the liminality, gender norms and performance of identity that graduate performance work is heir to without once mentioning any possible avenues for activism, protest, intervention or aid for the subjects whose physical pain she vividly dramatizes.

Is anyone striving to change working conditions that are hazardous to fatal over the long term? How might we intervene to effect change in damaged miners' bodies? Are these questions truly less pressing, less important than those that parse out their postmodernity?

Normally, the observation part of a critic's work closes at the end of a performance. However, it's hard not to conclude that the final evaluation of this artist's work actually begins now, at the close of three performances to a choir of performance studies scholars in Chapel Hill.

Did they change the world? Has the vividly depicted suffering ceased?

If not, what is now ethically required?

What does an artist--for Blevins clearly is one--owe her subjects, and when is that debt paid in full? The miners have had their weekend. Are we now excused?

For generations, a group of people--kept well out of the public eye--have offered their bodies as something akin to a living sacrifice to a disastrous long-term energy policy. Out of the Dark could change the way a number of Americans view those people.

For that to happen, they have to see it first. I wonder if they ever will.

Byron Woods can be reached at byron@indyweek.com.

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