Reader's Theatre Performance to Focus on Monongah Mine Disaster

Monday, April 20, 2015

Immigrant heritage and coal mining history are points of pride in many Marion County families; however, one cannot talk about Marion County history without mentioning the darker side of immigration and coal. In cooperation with the Pricketts Fort Memorial Foundation and the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, the Fairmont State University Department of Communication and Theatre Arts and Town and Gown Theatre presents a reader’s theatre performance of “A Prayer for America,” a new play about an immigrant family’s struggles set against the backdrop of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster.  

“A Prayer for America,” written by Tom DeTitta, the 2014 FSU artist-in-residence, was originally commissioned by West Virginia Public Theatre with financial assistance from the office of Sen. Roman Prezioso.

The reader’s theatre will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center on the FSU campus and at the Prickett’s Fort Visitor’s Center at Prickett’s Fort State Park at 7 p.m.  Friday, May 1. These performances, the second readings of the play in Marion County, will be followed by a panel discussion. Admission is $4, and the reader’s theatre will be followed by an opportunity to talk the playwright and with other local writers and historians about the play and the history that surrounds it. Reservations for the Prickett’s Fort performance can be made by calling (304) 363-3030. Reservations for the Folklife Center performance can be made by calling the Fairmont State Box Office at (304) 367-4240. 

The reader’s theatre performance of “A Prayer for America” is directed by Dr. Francene Kirk, Abelina Suarez Professor of Communication and Theatre at Fairmont State. Kirk has directed many plays at FSU, including the recent production of “Sleepy Hollow.”  

The play is about the Rispoli family. John Rispoli, played by Shawn Dunn, and his wife Conchetta, played by Kathy Dunn, have come from the Calabria region of Italy to find a better life in American for their sons, played by Tyler Kovar and Alex Myers.

On the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, they entertain their sponsor, Vincenzo, played by John Fallon. Vincenzo urges John to send his oldest son, still a boy, to work in the mines. Conchetta strongly objects only to be told that she has no say in the matter because she is woman.

After a night of drinking and deception, John and his son, Dionissimo, are missing from the breakfast table. A warning whistle from the mine strikes fear into the hearts of mothers and wives throughout the town. Conchetta seeks solace in her neighbor Ellie, played by Celi Oliveto. Ellie has lived in America longer than Conchetta and speaks frankly of the harshness of her new home. Both women are concerned for the well-being of their neighbor Anna Marie, played by Dani DeVito, who is pregnant and believes that the miners die each day as they enter the mine only to rise again. 

Playwright Tom DeTitta specializes in dramas rooted in history and a sense of place and is the founder and director of World Communities Theatre, an organization with a mission is to illuminate circumstances where injustices have occurred for the purpose of promoting healing.  His play, “Grace Will Follow Me Home: The American POW Drama” begins with the story of the Andersonville Civil War Stockade and includes the voices of veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. It was commissioned by Georgia Southwestern Foundation.  He also wrote “Streets of Gold,” another play about the immigrant experience. It premiered in Uniontown, Pa., and was supported by the Eberly Foundation and the Pennsylvania Museum and Historic Commission.

Joining DeTitta for the post-performance panel discussion will be James Knipple, Visiting Professor of Playwriting at West Virginia University; Dr. James Matthews, Fairmont State Professor of Language and Literature; and Jo Ann Lough, retired Professor of Theatre and local historian. The panel will take questions from the audience and its members are interested in hearing stories from the local residents related to the Monongah Mine Disaster.