Fluorspar is a mineral used in the production of steel, aluminium, and other industrial commodities, and was mined on the Burin Peninsula from 1933 until 1978.
The history of fluorspar mining in St. Lawrence is a home-grown human tragedy of miners who contracted cancers or who died slowly and breathlessly from silicosis, with lungs packed with silica particles as a result of the dangerous conditions of their underground labour.
Shortly before the mine’s closure, the human toll exacted was chronicled through a series of interviews with victims and families conducted by anthropologist Elliott Leyton and published in 1975 under the title of “Dying Hard.”
The voices of six of the interviewees and their stories of stoic suffering and loss have now been recuperated theatrically, adapted for single-handed stage performance by award-winning Newfoundland-born actress Mikaela Dyke.
Staging is minimalist: a straight chair and coat-tree draped with shirts and jackets for costume change.
In blue jeans and black top, Dyke serially represents four of the dying miners and two of their surviving wives across a broad range of emotional response — from anger, to resignation, to sorrow, to wry humour, sometimes reflective, sometimes ebullient, as they recount their memories and experiences to an unseen interlocutor.
Dyke’s set of characters are varied and well differentiated, with marked local accents — although the first of them is so broad and so rapid-fire in delivery as to be only partially intelligible.
Stories and characters evoke a hard struggle to make a living while working through illness and disability — cancer and silicosis — and lives spent shuttling between mine and hospital, until the miners end up in one of the fat graveyards that are the price of temporary economic prosperity.
With a running time of 60 minutes, the
theatrical experience is brief but intense, if not stilling on occasion. It is an evening you will not soon forget.
And for a reviewer who, as a boy, witnessed his Uncle Ellis, a retired coal miner, dying labouriously, lingering inch by inch from silicosis, this narrative struck home with particular force.
As the second of the two wives represented observes, “You don’t die of silicosis, you perish.”
Running at the Rabbittown Theatre for only two nights, Mikaela Dyke’s powerful and poignant adaptation of selected interviews from Leyton’s “Dying Hard,” directed by Dahlia Katz, closes tonight at 8 o’clock. Admission is $20.
And in the appreciative and receptive full-house audience on opening night, Elliott Leyton was there front and centre.