Coal mining conjures up inevitable stereotypical images of haggardly weary men smeared with black dust or "black gold". There are so many Life magazine photos of them and their families anxiously awaiting news of survivors at the latest cave in it would seem a black and white no brainer that we cannot continue this cycle of plundering the earth without destroying it and ourselves.
I've seen it firsthand in so many places as an investigative reporter. I've experienced it within as our own dairy farm and centuries old way of life was irrevocably altered and ultimately destroyed.
Yet Zeitgeist Theater's production of The Kentucky Cycle (now running at The Black Box Theater, Tremont Street, South End, Boston) explodes the myth that it's easy to falsely jump to obvious conclusions by solely blaming the greedy men who run the industry.
We are all to blame for the needless gut wretching sacrifices plumbing human souls more deeply than any machine. The prophets of progress alter even the most loving and honorable among us rendering our values false and hollow. We become mere shadows of our best selves.
In two (more than three hour) shows, the cast subtly and skillfully exposes all the shades of gray while tracing three interconnected families from1775-1975. Each half is different, the first anecdotal, leading from beautiful land robbed from the natives, to the second's representation of historic social cataclysmic events like the unionization of The Blue Star mine and The Civil Rights Movement.
We inevitably uncover the bleak desolation and destruction of family also through music that deftly and aptly takes us from the age of innocence to almost the present time as mining the very character of the land changes not only its soul but its song. The worst tragedy is that this could be any family, any job, anytime, anywhere.
There are the obvious stereotypes; the virtuous Indians who are betrayed, the patriarch so blind to the value of the coal under his land he sells it away for pennies despite his wife's cautions. He almost freely throws in his daughter's virtue to a well acted company representative posing as a traveling storyteller while condemning a simple poor country suitor as his vanity is blatantly massaged.
His arrogant denial of truth and insistence on self glorification as a war hero pales his daughter's triumphant yet painfully bought attempt to hand him back his family's destiny and financial AND spiritual redemption before it's too late. She bemoans this as her loss of truth only reclaimed by her own empowerment. She finally betrays the husband who has repeatedly betrayed her and the life that caused the deaths of four of their five children.
Her life and that of her son saved by the Jewish union organizer clash at first as he tries to lift her from despair. His knowledge and money temporarily save the family but the miner husband's not easily converted. He tries to change but is not strong enough.
His lack of faith, ability to be misled trying to be a hero to his son, causes the death of not only the Jew, but heavy dues for black Cassius who tries to aid unionization providing illegal arms. The miner's wife will finally see him for what he is. She poignantly sacrifices his life to the union, their "new family" as her son grows to head the struggle. It is a part played so well in real and stage lives by women "who manage".
There are too many horribly betrayed wives and children, too many sacrifices beyond Abraham's in the bible, for naught. Wisdom is purchased too dearly in children's deaths and hindsight is twenty twenty only for the ones who already suffered as their spouses persist repeatedly in the same vicious cycle of self and other betrayal.
How does this small cast of talented performers magically transport us on a limited stage to unlimited dreams of power, glory, money, love and back again through time and space? Hours fly yet some minutes seem eternity.
Is this not life, truth, theater, all times, all of us? I, for one believe it, since the elderly gentleman sitting next to me unabashedly let his tears flow despite his profession as theater reviewer who sees as many if not more shows than I. We both should have been jaded since we are both aging, avid theater goers, like fine wine. Yet he challenged me to write this review based on my question to him when we first met eons ago at the play's beginning whether I could view Part Two first and comprehend all.
The majesty that unfurled proved it possible. Just as the majesty of the original tract of land was undermined by the strip mining beneath it so are the quality of the lives above it as the characters struggle as all humans do for the best survival for their own. They all hurled forward unseeing, sometimes deliberately numbed, as we all are not merely blinded by coal dust or greed.
Strip mining merely symbolizes scavenging and ravaging the earth as we primitively become ourselves. Some take their self hatred out on family and others in prejudice, denial, refusal to pay the price for necessary change. Only the truly blessed, rise above awful sacrifices to find truth the ultimate beauty.
The Kentucky Cycle PART I: Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Saturdays & Sundays at 2 PM. The Kentucky Cycle PART II: Fridays at 7:30 PM; Saturdays & Sundays at 7:30 PM