New Play 'Coal Country' Honors 29 Miners Who Died At Upper Big Branch


On this West Virginia Morning, we hear from the co-creators of a new Off-Broadway play that honors the men who died at the Upper Big Branch mine disaster 10 years ago. Also, in this episode, meatpacking plants are being ordered to stay in operation, despite the sector being hit hard by the coronavirus. How are some plant workers across the region faring?

As Ohio Valley states begin to reopen their economies amid still rising coronavirus cases, one sector that has been hit particularly hard is the meatpacking industry: More than 480 Kentucky meatpacking workers have got sick. As Liam Niemeyer reports, these meatpacking plants are being mandated to stay operating. But plant workers say not enough is being done to protect them from the virus.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in Raleigh County, West Virginia that killed 29 men. The investigation that followed showed that coal output was king; safety measures in the mine were not. The legacy of this tragedy was given new life, in the form of a documentary play called “Coal Country.” It was presented at the New York Public Theatre, in March before theatres in New York City were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trey Kay, host of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s show Us & Them, saw the play and he met up with the show’s co-creators Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. This husband and wife team spent years interviewing family members and coworkers of the men who died in the explosion.

A key part of the “Coal Country” play was its soundtrack, which came by way of an on-stage appearance by singer/songwriter Steve Earle, who served as the show’s “Greek chorus.” The Grammy award-winning musician has taken the songs from this play and produced them into a new album called “The Ghosts of West Virginia,” which will be released on May 22.

Listen to a special acoustic version of the song “If I Could See Your Face Again.”

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