Stage Door Review

Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story

Monday, September 14, 2020

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by Beau Dixon, originally directed by Linda Kash

Talk Is Free Theatre, Backyard at 801 Big Bay Point Road, Barrie

September 9-19, 2020;

Community Studio Theatre, Burlington PAC, Burlington

October 17-18, 2020

Maurice: “And I tell my kids I do it all for you

If I dig coal you won’t have to dig coal too"

Talk Is Free Theatre, the adventurous and innovative professional theatre company located in Barrie, has opened its 2020/21 season with a welcome, physically distanced revival of Beau Dixon’s Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story. Dixon’s one-man play with with songs by Susan Newman and Rob Fortin premiered in 2015 at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary produced by Dixon’s own Firebrand Theatre. The hour-long play tells the story Maurice Ruddick, an African-Canadian miner who was trapped underground with six fellow miners for nine days during the Springhill Mining Disaster of 1958. Far from being a depressing tale, the story focusses on the triumph of the human spirit, the theme that comes vividly to the fore in Dixon’s vital, engaging performance.

Ruddick (1912–88), like his father before him, was a miner at the coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia. The mine had experienced two previous collapses – one in 1891 and one in 1956. Some old-timers, as we learn, had said that no lessons had been learned in ’56 and that the walls of some galleries were ready to collapse again.

While the mine’s history brought some miners to a fatalistic frame of mind, Ruddick, as portrayed by Dixon, was blessed with a genial, naturally optimistic disposition. We was known in the community as the “singing miner” because he sang as he worked and would also entertain people with song above ground.   Married with twelve children, he would sing “If I dig coal you won't have to dig coal too”. Although Ruddick tells us that some in the community referred to him with the N-word, his view was that down in the coal mine all the workers were equally black.

The disaster occurred on October 23, 1958, in Springhill’s No. 2 Colliery, then, at more than 1200 metres below the surface, the deepest mine in North America. The disaster was the result of what miners referred to meiotically as a “bump”, (an underground rock burst). Of the 174 miners in No. 2, 75 died and 98 were trapped but rescued. Ruddick’s crew of seven suffered one death but were among the last to be rescued on November 1, long after any were thought to be alive.

Ruddick’s crew members claimed it was his positive attitude and songs that help keep them going and in 1959 he was voted by readers of the Toronto Telegram as 1958’s Citizen of the Year. In 2015 the African Nova Scotian Music Association posthumously accorded him its Lifetime Achievement Award. The story gained such international attention that the Governor of Georgia invited nineteen of the last rescued miners to vacation at a newly created resort in Georgia. He rescinded Ruddick’s invitation upon learning he was Black, but Ruddick’s colleagues stated they would not attended without him. To find out what finally happened, you will need to see the show.

The show is an ideal vehicle not only to inform Canadians of a nearly forgotten Canadian hero, but as an ideal vehicle for Dixon. Known to Torontonians from such turns as the Narrator in the musical Passing Strange, Dixon is a fantastically gifted singer and actor. In Beneath Springhill Dixon plays over ten roles – Ruddick and his six crewmates; Ruddick’s wife Norma, their 10-year-old daughter Valerie plus two of her siblings; and the local CBC reporter covering the disaster.

Dixon easily and clearly differentiates these characters. The most difficult group to play is certainly Ruddick’s six crewmates. Yet, Dixon gives each a distinct manner of speech and gestural language so that we quickly come to know who is speaking even without their being named. Dixon also handily meets the challenge of showing how nine of the characters (excluding the CBC reporter who remains professionally concerned) change in response to the disaster – some, like Norma and Valerie, holding on to hope, some like several of Ruddick’s crew ready to give in to despair.

With great sensitivity Dixon portrays Ruddick’s own close call with despair. In response to his mates’ constant refrain of “Why me?” he too begins to wonder why his life should be extinguished so ignominiously. Yet, Dixon convincing shows how Ruddick rephrases the issue as “Why not me?” If God has meant him to die this day, why not celebrate it as any other day? And this faith he is able to instil in his fellow workers.

Given that Ruddick was known for his singing, the show gives Dixon ample opportunity to display his expressive, velvety voice. Especially lovely are Ruddick’s lullaby to (all twelve of) his children and the song with the refrain “Our love is a light that will shine on forever”. Dixon plays guitar and harmonica but won special applause for a witty song where accompanied himself on the spoons.

This production of Beneath Springhill is more elaborate than other outdoor theatre I’ve seen this summer since it also had a purpose built set and lighting design. Joe Pagnan cleverly suggested a mine with six tilted 4x4 uprights adorned with hanging cage work lights. Pagnan could suggest the amount of air left in the gallery by gradually dimming the lamps.

In 2015 Beneath Springhill won a Dora award for Best New Play and Dixon for Best Performance, both in the Theatre for Young people category because the show has premiered in Toronto at Young People’s Theatre. The show is appropriate and educational for young people and Dixon has previously toured to schools. Yet, the current revival demonstrates that it is clearly effective as a show for adults and indeed may hit them emotionally harder since they will be able to appreciate the potential impact of losing one’s children.

Though the subject matter may at first appear bleak, this fine production of Beneath Springhill and the glowing performance of Dixon make it one of the bright spots in theatre in this unusual season.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Beau Dixon, © 2015 Clifford Skarsted; Maurice Ruddick after the disaster, © 1958 Robert Norwood; Beau Dixon, © 2015 Clifford Skarsted.