Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cry of the Mountain

A documentary play about mountaintop removal in Appalachia

Conceived and performed by Adelind Horan

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

The first thing I noticed about Adelind Horan when she stepped on stage at the Hamner Theater in Afton, Virginia was her delicate beauty. She is tall and slender with a thick mane of mahogany curls cascading down her back. She seems fragile, apprehensive.

Do not let this first impression fool you, however. This young woman BRINGS IT!! She is a powerhouse of energy, depth, and talent. The minute she becomes Judy Bonds, the first person in her thirteen character play, she owns the stage. Indeed, she so convincingly portrays the nine men and 4 women in her one-woman show that if I had closed my eyes, I would not have realized that one person was playing all these roles. Even visually she is convincing, using different body language, gestures, facial expressions, mannerisms, and voice patterns for each character.

Horan conceived and wrote this show for her senior acting project at Hampshire College. She thought, “If I’m going to spend a year on this, I would like to make it something meaningful.” With that in mind, she began interviewing people and creating verbatim monologues. Not wanting to represent just one side of the issue, she interviewed coal company executives, as well as coal miners and others directly affected by mountaintop removal. The result is a well-rounded piece that does not demonize or insult either side.

Some characters included are:

Lexington Coal Company CEO Dan Geiger, who aptly points out that, while folks malign coal mining, they don’t want to give up their air conditioning or the other creature comforts that coal helps to provide.

Stephanie Pistello, the National Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices in Washington, DC, who explains the “road to nowhere.” Companies who remove mountaintops, it seems, can avoid reclaiming the land if they build a road where the mountaintop once was, even if no road is needed.

Ed Wiley, a former coal miner who worked at coal sludge dams, never realizing that he and his co-workers were indirectly “killing kids” at nearby Marsh Fork Elementary School. When his ten year old granddaughter alerts him to this in a heartbreaking exchange, he gets involved in a big way.

According to the EPA, “Mountaintop removal…. is a mining practice where the tops of mountains are removed, exposing the seams of coal. It can involve removing 500 feet or more of the summit to get at buried seams of coal. The earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.” Mountaintop removal, which has doubled in the past eight years, has destroyed over 1,200 miles of streams and more than 450 Appalachian mountains.

Horan’s show is beautifully enhanced by the Appalachian tunes played expertly on the banjo by Max Werham, whose music blends so well with the stories being told that it is easy to forget that he is there. He becomes part of the ebb and flow that make this show so seamless.

After each show, producer and activist Ray Nedzel joins Horan and Werham to answer questions and give advice to the audience on how they can get involved. Clearly, the shows lights a fire in the audience. At the performance I attended almost every audience member stayed for the talk-back, most wanting to know what they could do to make a difference.

I have witnessed my own relatives and friends collapse in tears at the sight of a landscape they no longer recognize. When I visit my native Wise County, Virginia, much of the beauty that I remember is gone. This is indeed a serious environmental problem that plays heavily on the emotions of native Appalachians. My main concern is what the future holds for Appalachians in either case. If we cannot stop mountaintop removal, Appalachians will continue to suffer from the ill effects of this shameful practice. If we do stop the coal companies from destroying mountains, hundreds of jobs will be lost and families will suffer. We cannot just protest mountaintop removal, walk away, and feel good about ourselves. If we do, we will bear the responsibility of the carnage that will be left in our wake. That carnage will be measured in human lives.

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