"Remembering #9" on Stage for Arts Day at Legislature

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Coal dust runs through the veins of the people of North Central West Virginia. Unfortunately, the history of the coal industry also includes tragedy -- Monongah in 1907, Farmington in 1968, Sago in 2006. These dark days are woven into the collective memories of a region.

A group of Fairmont State University students researched, created and performed a devised theatre piece based on oral history of family and friends of victims and survivors of the Farmington mine disaster in 2009. FSU's School of Fine Arts and Masquers will present a performance of "Remembering #9: Stories from the Farmington Mine Disaster" as part of Arts Day at the Legislature. The performance begins at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25, in the Norman L. Fagan West Virginia State Theater at the Culture Center in Charleston.

The West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the West Virginia Commission on the Arts will host Arts Day at the Legislature on Monday, Jan. 25, at the State Capitol Complex in Charleston. The event, planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., celebrates the vitality of the arts in West Virginia; the impact the arts has on cultural growth, economic development and education; and how arts bring together artists, arts organizations and art enthusiasts from across the state.

Arts Day at the Legislature will be held in the upper and lower rotundas of the State Capitol and will consist of information booths and live performances including vocal and instrumental music, poetry readings and dance and theatrical performances. FSU's performance is part of the Collegiate Series program that evening to wrap up the day's activities.

"As the Sago Mine Disaster unfolded in 2006 near Buckhannon, I felt for the families waiting for news of their loved ones underground. I wondered what they might have talked about in the little country church where they waited for news. I wanted to know the real stories behind the facts," said Dr. Francene Kirk, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre for the Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts.

Kirk talked with three students about these concepts. Samantha Huffman, Celi Oliveto and Jason Young, all of Fairmont, decided to explore and preserve the stories in their own backyard, the stories from the 1968 mining disaster at Consolidation Coal's Farmington No. 9 Mine. Seventy-eight miners were lost on that November day.

As part of Fairmont State's Undergraduate Research Program, the students studied with professional oral historians and began collecting interviews with Marion County residents who graciously shared their memories of that horrible day in 1968.

"Collecting oral history is like exchanging gifts. When people tell you stories, they are giving you a gift. Listening to stories is also a gift. I'm grateful that I got to meet the people I talked with and could record their stories. One of the people I talked with was Russell Bonasso, who recently passed away. I'm so glad we have some of his stories recorded," Celi Oliveto said.

The students also studied museum theatre with the Kentucky Historical Society and a Kentucky playwright. During workshop rehearsals, the students read scenes aloud, discussed them and revised them. FSU Theatre graduate Steve McElroy helped finalize the script. Their production, "Remembering #9: Stories from the Farmington Mine Disaster" took the Wallman Hall stage in May and September 2009.

The show includes audio and video clips, as well as photographs, many of which were provided by the people who were interviewed. Photographer Bob Campione, who covered the mine disaster as a photo journalist, is allowing the students to use his photos for their production.

"This show has been absolutely the most rewarding thing I've ever done," Kirk said.

The story of the Farmington Mine Disaster is the story of a collective community. "Remembering No. 9" preserves those collective memories. Those who were lost are not forgotten. At the end of the show, the cast says all 78 names aloud.

Oliveto said she has learned a lot through working on the project for two years. She said that besides all the research that was done, she also had to learn to collaborate with other writers and theatre artists on a group project, which was at times challenging.

"I'm very glad to be able to do this project as an undergraduate student," Oliveto said. "I had to learn to let people help me. I'm so glad that Dr. Kirk dragged me into this project."

The Undergraduate Research Program began at Fairmont State in 2005. It was designed to give students an opportunity to independently further their education with the guidance of a faculty mentor. At the conclusion of the project, the transcripts of the interviews will be housed in the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at FSU.