Miner's chorus from October Sky
Based on the movie of the same title, October Sky, a new musical at The Old Globe runs through October 23. The story follows a group of high school students who become immersed in rocketry after watching Sputnik fly over their small town of Coalwood, West Virginia.
The show opens with a chorus by the miners of the town’s domineering coal mine. Throughout the course of the evening this chorale singing guided the transitions between storylines. It served as a bonding agent holding the show together as we followed the students and their rockets along with the struggles of a small coal town subjected to the will of the faceless “company.”
I was reminded that there is a history of chorale singing and coal mining. Starting in the 19th Century with the industrial revolution, the blue collar towns of Wales all had choirs composed of miners and steel workers. The tradition became start school, drop out of school, get a job, join the choir.
The tradition in West Virginia followed the same pattern, except for the choir. This cycle of labor is the antagonist in October Sky. “The company” ruled all aspects of small mining communities such as Coalwood.
The housing was provided by the company but only if the residents were working in the mine. If a worker got injured and was unable to work then he and his family got evicted.
The company store is infamous for creating an informal indentured servitude. October Sky hints at the idea that the company even influenced educational policies in order to maintain access to cheap labor.
The entire system is of the company, by the company, and — of course — for the company. The worker’s only option was to unionize and strike.
We still have tension between labor and management. We still have companies trying to control their work forces. These days the control is much more benign. It’s about access to benefits such as healthcare and 401K contributions from the employer instead of access to housing and food.