“We belong to the mountain; what you do to the land, you do to the people,” says Caitlin, the pivotal character in Sarah Moon’s brand new play Light Comes. The New Mummers theatre troupe unveiled the play’s first public reading last Friday, May 29th, in New York City as the kickoff event to the 2nd annual NY Loves Mountains Festival, “a weekend full of theatre, music, and activism promoting an end to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.”
Stephanie Pistello, who plays Caitlin, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky with strong roots in Southwest Virginia and Tennessee. She and Moon cofounded both this festival and the New Mummers, which has plans to hit the road soon. “It’s a priority for us to tour this play in coal country,” says Moon. “We want to premiere the play in Kentucky, then bring it to theatres throughout Appalachia before bringing it back to New York.”
Light Comes is actually two plays running concurrently. Moon achieves this dramatic hat trick through the device of having most of the actors playing a character in each drama, switching back & forth instantly throughout the overall performance.
I say ‘most’ because two central characters, Caitlin and Granny (played by Carol Neiman), do not appear at all in the Historical Play (HP), but only in the Contemporary Play (CP). Caitlin’s brother Virgil, on whose surprising change of heart the play’s outcome hangs, appears in the HP as Samuel Insull, a business associate of Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison, you ask? What’s he got to do with a play about mountaintop removal mining? Plenty, as it turns out.
Edison had hired the brilliant Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla as an assistant in the early 1880s. Edison needed a system to distribute electricity to houses. He designed a DC (direct current) system, but it had too many unworkable problems in it. Edison promised Tesla lots of money in bonuses if he could get the bugs out. Tesla took the challenge and ended up saving Edison what would be millions of dollars by today’s standards. Furthermore, Tesla proposed that Edison’s re-designed AC (alternating current) generators should be powered by wind, which was a limitless resource.
Enter King Coal. “You can’t own the wind,” Edison tells Tesla flatly in Moon’s play. Coal mining rights, on the other hand, can be bought, sold, and controlled. Several scenes later Edison and partner Insull scheme in a closed doors board of directors meeting how to maintain private monopoly control over the new electric companies.
Edison never kept his promise to pay Tesla the bonuses. Tesla quit, and Edison spent the rest of his life trying to discredit Tesla. In Moon’s CP, actor Jeff Biggers switches from his Tesla character to ‘Birdman,’ a quirky but brilliant neighbor of Granny, Caitlin & Virgil. “I see spinning blades on Healy Mountain,” he whispers to Caitlin of his vision for the region’s future. But like his historical shadow Tesla, Birdman is ruined by corporate interests he lacks the ability or courage to stand up to, and flees to Colorado in frustration and shame.
Virgil, played by Andrew Stokan, is the CP flipside of Samuel Insull. Insull was a British immigrant who rushed to America in search of fortune. Virgil can’t wait to get out of Appalachia; he scoops up his university degree and heads for Wall Street, where he lands in a financial house that trades, wait for it, in coal stocks. Just as with Insull, money is the only thing Virgil can see before him. On a visit back home, Granny tells Virgil about the mountaintop removal going on: “It feels like we mountain people are being pulled up by the roots.” But her deep love of the land falls on deaf ears with Virgil.
Caitlin, meantime, is gaining renewed appreciation for Granny’s wide knowledge of the region’s flora and fauna, and for Granny’s treasure trove of Cherokee stories and ways, but she also understands the need to work for change in the modern world.
She sees Birdman’s visions for the future, contrasted by the need for a firm backbone to bring those visions to life. And she observes Virgil’s insider ways on Wall Street and takes a lesson in how to work the system. It’s only a matter of time before Caitlin musters all her resources to tackle the reckless environmental destruction taking place around her.
Tomorrow: An interview with Sarah Moon, playwright & author of ‘Light Comes’