Review: ‘Anthracite Fields’ at The Kennedy Center

It was a haunting, atmospheric triumph. It was an urgent, yet respectfully accomplished multimedia exploration of American cultural issues rarely presented on DC stages about the unknown laborers in the deadly work that help energize our lifestyles (including the vast digital “clouds”). It was about those who toiled and still do, deep underground. It was the striking accomplishment of Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields.

Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields. Photo by Chris Lee.
Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields. Photo by Chris Lee.

Performed on The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage as part of the two-week Direct Current series of contemporary arts, Anthracite Fields included music and text by Julia Wolfe, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this composition. It was an aural, choral, and visual feast; full of bittersweet beauty, felt physical textures, and colorization that drew upon American folk, rock, and classical music and the utter gorgeousness of 24 human choral voices. (There also two bicycle wheels becoming harps).

Never a pity party, the multimedia, quite immersive, Anthracite Fields was the partnership – no, make that marriage – of the award-winning, six-member musical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars, the GRAMMY-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and in-demand conductor Julian Wachner.  Evocative scenography and projection design by Jeff Sugg used black-and-white from the archives of Lewis Hine, Frank Delano, and others, along with gray-toned graphics as educational tools.

The evening with Anthracite Fields brought forth the once intense life of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal-mining past. But this is not musty history for just a certain segment of patrons. Wolfe easily connected that past and those miners with today in the last movement, “Appliances,” that made clear how much coal miners did, and how often they died, to make modern life and modern conveniences possible.

In its one-hour performance without intermission, Anthracite Fields had five movements. First was “Foundation,” beginning with low ghostly bass sounds from Robert Black and percussion from David Cossin evoking what a deep mine with its shiny black coal shafts might sound like – until the echoing Choir voices were heard. Then came the reading of names of some who died in the mines as images were projected with Vicky Chow on keyboard. Then came “Breaker Boys,” a high-energy piece revealing the fears of adolescent boys working in the mines, with an ardent vocal performance by cellist Ashley Bathgate.

The third movement was “Speech,” with stirring words voiced by guitarist Mark Steward from a speech by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis. The movement poignantly asks: “If we must grind up human flesh and bones in the industrial machine that we call modern America, then don’t you and I who consume the coal and benefit from that service because we live in comfort owe those who mine – and owe their families some protection if they die?”

“Speech” was followed by a much different movement called “Flowers,” not stirring but comely, almost sweet, with piano by Vicky Chow. This movement paid homage to the mining families who grew flowers above the mines to provide beauty in their lives.

"Flowers," the fourth movement in Julia Wolfe's Anthracite Fields. Photo by Chris Lee.
“Flowers,” the fourth movement in Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields. Photo by Chris Lee.

Lastly was an unexpected movement, “Appliances.” In this movement, through music and voices, we are not left off the hook. No longer just history, Anthracite Fields connected a hot steaming shower, ordering a book, going to the gym, calling a friend and other conveniences to energy and electricity. But this is not a teary or angry musical movement railing to go back to what once was – rather, it aimed to inspire awareness of what once was. (That was not lost on the audience I overheard, discussing the performance and the results of the Pennsylvania special election of the same evening).

Anthracite Fields gave honor to those who toiled with their hands all their working life in a world without government safety nets. A life that fewer and fewer of us know. Anthracite Fields is a steely oratorical challenge to the status quo of short-term knowledge and forgetting the past, thinking it of no relevance to the now.

In her program notes, Wolfe, originally from Pennsylvania, wrote, “My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who preserved and endured in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.” Wolfe certainly did that.

Anthracite Fields winningly paid homage to those then and those now who get dirty every day working with their hands. It gave visibility to the too often unnoticed or scoffed at. Those who work in dangerous jobs to keep rest of us comfortable even as we may sleep.

So, to Julia Wolfe, thank you for Anthracite Fields and for remembering those who toiled with dirty hands and broken fingernails from working each day. And, one more note. My Dad worked with dangerous chemicals every day for 12 hours. He came home smelling of those chemicals and his own sweat, wearing his soiled green cotton work clothes. You made his work honorable as you did for long ago Pennsylvania miners depicted in Anthracite Fields. Thank you for that.

Running Time: About one hour, with no intermission.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields played one performance on March 13, 2018, at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For upcoming Kennedy Center events go online.

Note: US Government data about year-by-year deaths of miners since 1900 can be found here. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2012, the average miner in the U.S. earns an hourly wage of $27.62, over the course of a 43.6-hour work week. This amounts to an annual salary of $62,620 – in DC terms, about what a GS-12 starts at. Wages vary based on location and specific job duties.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.