Stage & Dance

'Saudi Arabia of Coal' brings mountaintop removal to the stage

On the surface, it's a family drama.

A young couple, Marie and Hovie, are learning to live together and face big moments and big decisions early in their lives. The big decisions just happen to relate to mountaintop- removal mining, which is quickly encroaching on Marie's family homestead, where she and Hovie live.

"My great-great-great-grandpa hewed the logs for this home," Marie tells Hovie, who works for the mining company, in a performance of Welcome to the Saudi Arabia of Coal at the MeX Theatre in The Kentucky Center in Louisville last week.

Saudi Arabia of Coal comes to Lexington this weekend for three performances at the Downtown Arts Center. The play is based on journalist and commentator Jeff Biggers' memoir, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland. The book is an account of his own family homestead being strip-mined.

"I was working on a book in Mexico in 1999 when I received a letter from my uncle saying his home was being strip-mined," Biggers said Monday afternoon during a phone interview from a stop on the play's tour, which was scheduled to hit Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh this week before coming to Lexington. "That began a 10-year journey for me to explore the history of coal in our nation and mountaintop-removal mining.

"It not only strips the land. It strips the people and their heritage."

Biggers says his memoir connects the coal industry and mining for profit to Thomas Jefferson, the explorations of Lewis and Clark and the displacement of Native Americans.

"It became this amazing journey to see that for 200 years, people have been fighting this incredible assault on our land and our people," Biggers said.

In the past few years, Biggers' work has started leaning more toward spoken-word and theatrical performance. When he started looking for a way to bring Reckoning at Eagle Creek to the stage, he was introduced to Stephanie Pistello. She is a Transylvania University graduate who grew up in Lexington and has set aside a burgeoning theater career to work as the national field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, an organization seeking to pass legislation to end mountaintop-removal mining.

"I have never met someone who is so persistent and determined to take theater to a new level," Biggers said of Pistello. "She is able to take all of this raw data about the coal industry and mountaintop removal and relay it in a way people understand."

Biggers realizes that one of the major challenges for his book and the play is to reach beyond people who are opposed to mountaintop removal and be seen by people who are undecided or even support the coal industry and its practices.

Opponents of strip-mining say clean coal is impossible and coal-based energy is advancing global warming, but coal industry proponents claim that clean coal is attainable and that mining is crucial to the nation's economy. They also contend that mountaintop removal often leaves land more usable than it originally was.

The play addresses some of those assertions through satirical commercials shown throughout the show.

"What we are finding is that the best way to change society is to get 80 to 100 people in a room, present them with information and get them excited about doing something to bring about change," Biggers said. "That's what we're doing with this play."