Coaltown Blues coming to Gisborne

PATHOS FROM THE PIT: Black Beech Theatre actor-singer Chris Green performs New Zealand playwright Mertvyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues “with passion, understanding, and a sympathy which brought members of the audience to their feet during the final ovation”, enthused a Waikato Times reviewer in June of Green’s one-man show. Green performs Coaltown Blues in Gisborne next week. Picture supplied
Chris Green

THE itch to tour a solo show was all-consuming for former economics and accounting teacher Chris Green. He searched for a one-man play, found New Zealand playwright Mervyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues and hit the road.

Having polished his production over the past four years Green will bring his one-man show to Gisborne for a five show season at Unity Theatre.

Coaltown Blues is an intensely personal play with music, says Green. It depicts the tragedy and comedy of poverty, politics and struggles throughout Thompson’s childhood in a West Coast mining town. Born at Kaitangata in 1936, Thompson left school at 15. He worked for five years as a miner, and later he became an actor, playwright and director.

“I met one of his mining colleagues,” says Green. “He said they used to call him Hamlet.”

In Coaltown Blues, Thompson relives the poverty and struggles of his boyhood, pit mining, the Depression, World War 2, politics, unions and religion. As a playwright, he was committed to a theatre rooted in the New Zealand experience and in working-class politics of the left.

The play’s title comes from a song heard on the wireless during the World War 2 years.

When the war is over maybe then we’ll see

That there was a purpose in this black history.

In the meantime

Coaltown blues, I’ve got the coaltown blues.

Coaltown blues, I’ve got the coaltown blues.

Green was teaching at a Greymouth school, a few kilometres away from Thompson’s hometown, when he came across a copy of Coaltown Blues in the library. The Pike River coal mine tragedy had just happened and child poverty statistics began to be released, he says.

“When I read Coaltown Blues I thought the play had to be done,” he says.

“Mervyn Thompson’s dad was a fairly violent man. He was a gambler and the family was often short of enough money to make ends meet. Thompson’s story resonates even without the coal mine connection.”

While the play is still relevant, it has been overshadowed by controversy around its author.

When Coaltown Blues was first performed during the radical feminist climate of the 1980s, masked women abducted Thompson, chained him naked to a tree, threatened him with castration, and spray-painted “rapist” on his car. Demonstrators continued to make their presence felt through Thompson’s subsequent performances of Coaltown Blues.

Although the women claimed Thompson had committed “three or four” rapes, the playwright denied the accusations, his assailants provided no further information and no one laid a police complaint. There appears to be no discussion at all about whether Thompson had raped anyone, says a story in Feminist Review 52, “his guilt is simply assumed”.

Thompson carried on as a diploma of drama tutor at Auckland University, and was supported in a letter to the student newspaper signed by 24 of his female students, but his theatrical career foundered.

“Because of the incident people were hands off,” says Green. “But by now, people have separated the work from the person. From my point of view, there’s no denying he was an important voice in theatre in New Zealand.”

Involved in drama and musical theatre since he was a year 12 student, Green was teaching English at a little school in Murchison in the South Island when he felt the need to go full-time performing again. He resigned in 2012, rehearsed Coaltown Blues and shaped the show throughout 2013. Once he felt comfortable enough with his performance to leave the director and production team behind he hit the road to live the dream.

THE itch to tour a solo show was all-consuming for former economics and accounting teacher Chris Green. He searched for a one-man play, found New Zealand playwright Mervyn Thompson’s Coaltown Blues and hit the road.

Having polished his production over the past four years Green will bring his one-man show to Gisborne for a five show season at Unity Theatre.

Coaltown Blues is an intensely personal play with music, says Green. It depicts the tragedy and comedy of poverty, politics and struggles throughout Thompson’s childhood in a West Coast mining town. Born at Kaitangata in 1936, Thompson left school at 15. He worked for five years as a miner, and later he became an actor, playwright and director.

“I met one of his mining colleagues,” says Green. “He said they used to call him Hamlet.”

In Coaltown Blues, Thompson relives the poverty and struggles of his boyhood, pit mining, the Depression, World War 2, politics, unions and religion. As a playwright, he was committed to a theatre rooted in the New Zealand experience and in working-class politics of the left.

The play’s title comes from a song heard on the wireless during the World War 2 years.

When the war is over maybe then we’ll see

That there was a purpose in this black history.

In the meantime

Coaltown blues, I’ve got the coaltown blues.

Coaltown blues, I’ve got the coaltown blues.

Green was teaching at a Greymouth school, a few kilometres away from Thompson’s hometown, when he came across a copy of Coaltown Blues in the library. The Pike River coal mine tragedy had just happened and child poverty statistics began to be released, he says.

“When I read Coaltown Blues I thought the play had to be done,” he says.

“Mervyn Thompson’s dad was a fairly violent man. He was a gambler and the family was often short of enough money to make ends meet. Thompson’s story resonates even without the coal mine connection.”

While the play is still relevant, it has been overshadowed by controversy around its author.

When Coaltown Blues was first performed during the radical feminist climate of the 1980s, masked women abducted Thompson, chained him naked to a tree, threatened him with castration, and spray-painted “rapist” on his car. Demonstrators continued to make their presence felt through Thompson’s subsequent performances of Coaltown Blues.

Although the women claimed Thompson had committed “three or four” rapes, the playwright denied the accusations, his assailants provided no further information and no one laid a police complaint. There appears to be no discussion at all about whether Thompson had raped anyone, says a story in Feminist Review 52, “his guilt is simply assumed”.

Thompson carried on as a diploma of drama tutor at Auckland University, and was supported in a letter to the student newspaper signed by 24 of his female students, but his theatrical career foundered.

“Because of the incident people were hands off,” says Green. “But by now, people have separated the work from the person. From my point of view, there’s no denying he was an important voice in theatre in New Zealand.”

Involved in drama and musical theatre since he was a year 12 student, Green was teaching English at a little school in Murchison in the South Island when he felt the need to go full-time performing again. He resigned in 2012, rehearsed Coaltown Blues and shaped the show throughout 2013. Once he felt comfortable enough with his performance to leave the director and production team behind he hit the road to live the dream.

Coaltown Blues by Mervyn Thompson, performed by Chris Green,Unity Theatre September 13-17. Wednesday 13, 7.30pm, Thursday 14, 2pm, Friday 15, 7.30pm, Saturday 16, 4pm, Sunday 17, 2pm. Tickets $20 from i-Site.

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