Kile Ius

Musical sings of coal-mining era

Vancouver Island University students perform We Too, based on Nanaimo's early heritage

Beneath the city streets, men toiled by lamp light, digging out the rich coal seams. Above, women tended the house and raised the children, hoping their husbands returned home safe from the mines.That was daily life for thousands of families in Nanaimo during the coal-mining era, the subject of a revival play from Vancouver Island University’s theatre department.We Too was originally produced almost 30 years ago, telling the coal-mining story from the miners’ perspective.“It’s like the whole town coming together to tell the story,” said director Ross Desprez, an instructor at VIU. “All the old spirits are coming alive to tell the story.”The coal mines in Nanaimo, Newcastle Island, South Wellington and Extension were some of the deadliest in Canada, with dozens of deaths annually and major disasters like explosions and floods common.With the aim to improve safety, working conditions and pay, the workers formed unions and went on strike, which was met with strike breakers and violence by company owners.Union legend Ginger Goodwin is buried in a cemetery in Cumberland, shot by a police officer while fleeing persecution as a unionist.All of this figures prominently in the musical, with the role and lives of women given more prominence than the original play.Loss of the music from the 1982 production meant student Travis Pangburn, who is also a musician, took the responsibility of writing and adapting the score.One of his songs focuses on the role of women in Nanaimo society during the coal era.“I didn’t feel the play really showed the women’s experience,” Pangburn said. “Who really has the hard job?”The only music remaining from the original production are two folk tunes. “No one really knows who was the writer,” Pangburn said.The music wasn’t much of a challenge for him, having a grandfather who was a miner and musician who played the type of music Pangburn features in the play.“I grew up my whole life playing this kind of music,” he said. “My background really helped.”To help the students understand the mining history, the cast and crew took a field trip to the Nanaimo Museum with local historian Lynne Bowen, author of Boss Whistle.Even so-called roughnecks today – landscapers, equipment operators – don’t work nearly close to the conditions of Nanaimo’s miners.“They don’t even compare to what these men were doing,” Pangburn said. “People have forgotten a little.”We Too opens today (March 3) at Malaspina Theatre at 8 p.m. and continues March 4-5, 8 p.m., and March 8-10 at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets $12; $10/students. Please call 250-740-6100.arts@nanaimobulletin.com

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