Local playwright Larry Muhammad and his Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre have been presenting historically rooted plays since the company’s inception.
To kick off Black History Month, Muhammad is offering a double bill of his work at The Bard’s Town, including “Derby Mine 4,” a new play commissioned by the Kentucky Playwrights Workshop. The story chronicles the interaction of four miners caught in a coal mine collapse.
The four characters are each amalgamations, but the mine collapse was real. Muhammad spoke with Insider about mining history for ideas, receiving the commission to write the play, and the process of bringing it to the stage
“Kentucky Playwrights Workshop commissioned me to write a 45-minute play that had the word derby, or some relation to the theme derby,” said Muhammad.
The play didn’t have to be about the Kentucky Derby per se, so Muhammad did what many people do when they are curious about the connections a word might have — he went to Google and got creative.
“I happened to put in the word ‘darby’ in a Google search because that’s what they call the horse race over in Britain, but what popped up was the Darby mine, down near Harlan (Ky.). There had been an explosion that killed a handful of workers. It was in 2006,” he said.
The story was big news, and the government even stepped in to address safety concerns. While it was a stretch to get from “derby” to a dangerous cave-in, Muhammad knew he had found his subject matter.
“I thought, a coal mine, what’s more Kentucky than that?”
Before he became a playwright, Muhammad was a reporter, a career that taught him to research and to understand stories created by a wide range of disparate facts.
“I used a lot of the information out of that research and just put four characters in the mine who had divergent backgrounds,” he explained.
Muhammad’s process allows him to essentially tell several stories, as each character brings a unique historical perspective to the drama.
The character of Becky, for instance, provides insight into the way women face adverse conditions in mines.
“I did research, and there were narratives about all the misogyny and sexual harassment and all of this abuse that went on,” said Muhammad. “Because it’s a masculine environment … she’s struggling against the prejudice against her.”
Issues surrounding the eroding strength of the unions in coal mining are brought to the fore by the character Proctor, who blames the mining company for the lax safety standards.
“He’s a frustrated union guy who blames the mine company management for the situation they are in, that they are spreading their lies,” explained Muhammad.
The often discussed health issues of miners are given a face by the character Dan, who is suffering from the early stages of black lung.
While he explores many facets of the human condition, Muhammad focuses on people or moments in black history that aren’t often told. In this play, he dives into the African-American population in coal country and how it has ebbed and flowed.
“They are rare in the mines nowadays because of stuff that happened in the past — racism — but there used to be about an equal number of blacks and whites in the mine,” said Muhammad. “When the mines automated, they didn’t train the black miners, and the union kind of let them down. So people just drifted away to other lines of work.”
In “Derby Mine 4,” the character Lee is a one of the few remaining African-American miners, and he faces discrimination, despite having a higher level job with the company. That discrimination is just one way the personalities of the characters overlap and come into conflict.
Dan harasses Becky, Becky mistrusts Lee. While Procter is a union guy, Lee has a leadership role given to him by the mining company, so they naturally butt heads. All of these personal dramas play out while the characters’ lives are in mortal danger, placing these conflicts inside a deadly pressure cooker.
In addition to doing research for his scripts, Muhammad generally uses his connections in the local scene to work closely with a director or dramaturge to refine the first drafts of his plays in order to bring a higher quality final product to the stage.
For “Derby Mine 4,” he worked with director Kathi E.B. Ellis of Looking for Lilith Theatre Co. Their work together included a reading of a preliminary draft at The Bard’s Town in December.
The evening’s second piece is “Double V,” Muhammad’s first play that was based on the life of Frank Stanley, a pioneering African-American journalist who exposed racism and bigotry in the World War II era.
Catch “Derby Mine 4” and “Double V” this Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 1-3, at The Bard’s Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. The shows start at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20 at the door.