Out of the Dark is a performance ethnography based on oral history interviews with men and women coal miners, and their families, in southwestern Virginia. The interactive performance brings audiences down into the coal mines to experience the drama and awe of this fascinating other world as miners describe work in the mines—but how do coal miners sustain themselves, and their marriages, after debilitating injuries leave them disabled? The play explores themes of love, loss, and hope through powerful and often unheard stories from the Appalachian men and women who live in coal country.
Notes from the Adaptor/Director:
From November of 2003 to the present, I have gotten to know a group of primarily disabled coal miners in southwest Virginia. Their stories are powerful, poignant, and deeply embedded in the ambiguities of daily living with death in the mines. The complex web of social and kinship networks, body politics, and economic in/stability is wound around one substance, coal, and their daily doing of working in the mines, even as that same work has un-done these miners through severed limbs, dis-abled bodies, and the psychological wounding of watching loved ones become crushed in mining rock falls. Their richly textured stories are often silenced under dominant narratives of Appalachians as either “simple and stupid” or “dirty and dangerous.”
This project cross-connects the politics and poetics of southern Appalachian coal mining culture. The performance investigates miners’ unique understanding of the mines as having a living body, character, and language. This configuration of mining space as a body is central to miners’ conceptions of their work, the ways they negotiate and construct their own identities in relation to the mines, how they cope with the daily dangers of their work, and how they later deal with disability as separation from a community of other miners and from the mines with which they have formed a sustained relationship. The performance highlights women miners’ narratives of subjugation, sexual harassment, and empowerment, in addition to the often silenced narratives of disabled miners with black lung who literally have no breath with which to speak against those who unjustly deny them compensation or disability status.
My research culminated in the original live performance Out of the Dark: The Oral Histories of Appalachian Coal Miners, produced first at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and currently in its second production at Kennesaw State University.