The Iron Mountain Review Vol. XXXII
12 Baker, Davidson, Egerton, & Wright
and singing the chorus of a song: “eight hours digging, eight hours drinking, eight hours drifting, five days a week.” They are vaguely dusty. Jake has brought the explosives needed to reopen the burnt part home for the weekend in a locked wooden toolbox which he leaves in his kitchen. Pete steals the dynamite, all four sticks and plus a little plunging detonator and takes off with Dusty, his comic relief best friend, and to blow up the burnt part to forestall the mine reopening. As the show’s anthem repeats, “There’s gonna be fire, there’s gonna be noise, there’s gonna be hell to pay, for the burnt part boys.” The show’s climax occurs when the older boys, the miners, who are chasing the three youngsters up the mountain in order to stop Pete from using the explosives he’s stolen, reach them moments too late. In the last minutes of daylight, Pete throws the dynamite and, in a cacophonous clash, complete with falling ladders and flashing lights, all five characters— Jake, Chet, Pete, Dusty, and Francis—fall into the mine and believe themselves to be fatally stuck in the same place where their fathers died. An abbreviated long dark night of the soul follows, complete with calculations about how long their oxygen might last and how long it will take for them to die. In some kind of dream sequence in the tomb of their fathers, they see those men as they would have been just before the explosion, sharing a dinner break, bragging on their kids, and connect this dreamlike sequence with the parents they barely remember. These men have appeared onstage throughout as chorus and one of them is Pete and Jake’s dad, as well as The Alamo character. Hours later, the sun rises, and our traumatized heroes realize that they’re sitting in what amounts to an open hole and are in no danger at all. New dawn, anthem, curtain. The Burnt Part Boys was already in rehearsal in New York on April 5, 2010, when an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, killed twenty-nine miners. On May 19, David Rooney of The New York Times interviewed the book writer, Mariana Elder, about the effect of this news from Appalachia on the play which was by that point in preview. Rooney wrote: News coverage of the recent accidents, as well as, historical research has constantly underscored for the creative team the nobility of people in mining communities who face daily reminders of their loved ones’ mortality.
“They were saying, ‘This is what we do, this is where our families are from, this is what we’ll do in the future,’ Ms. Elder said. As much of a piece of fiction as our show is, the more I read about it the more I felt a great responsibility to accurately represent that.” Rooney also quotes Douglas Aibel, the artistic director of the co-producing Vineyard Theatre, as saying: “This piece was forged in the couple of years after 9/11, and I was just very taken with the concept of looking at a period of history where young people are faced with this kind of challenge, when their fathers or parents tragically die, and they’re forced to learn how to live and move on [. . .]. I thought it was a very provocative topic for musicalization.” The lady sitting next to me during The Burnt Part Boys spent an entire intermission telling me everything she loved about The Kentucky Cycle and how fabulous she thought it was. Aibel’s point was totally clear, although, perhaps, not in the way he had intended. The Burnt Part Boys is indeed a play about the aftermath of a recent American tragedy, and that tragedy, as I am continuing to work on it, is 9/11. It is not, and was never really intended to be, about a tragedy that occurred in a coal mine. In an interview with Tim Sanford and Kent Nicholson, the Playwright Horizons’ creative team behind The Burnt Part Boys , they reveal what, to me, is the most interesting fact of all. This musical was not in any way in its original conception going to be about coal miners. Nathan Tyler is from Salina, Kansas. Kris Miller is from Maryland. Mariana Elder grew up in northern California and went to Grinnell. Tyler and Miller began writing songs for The Burnt Part Boys while still in graduate school at NYU. In their original story, the boys climb up the mountain as part of a high school graduation ritual involving a haunted Civil War battlefield. Miller explains, We wanted to do something that was an adventure, with young people, like The Goonies or Stand by Me . Musically we were interested in this region of the country. And we were both [Miller and Tyler. Elder came to the project later.] really interested in the Civil War, so we came up with this ghost story that was set a hundred years after the Civil War, in 1962. We then picked our characters, and their names, and went to work. (Nicholson, et al.) In a recent New Yorker article, Ariel Levy observed that
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