“You ask me what kept me alive down there? Well, it was my faith. My music. My family.” So says the protagonist of Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story by Beau Dixon, a playwright, actor, and musician who divides his time between Peterborough and Toronto.
Maurice Ruddick, known as “the singing miner,” was an African Canadian man who survived nine days underground during the 1958 Springhill, Nova Scotia, mining disaster. Dixon performs this one-man “drama with music,” taking on the roles of all 10 characters.
The play, which features music by Susan Newman and lyrics by Rob Fortin, follows Maurice through the days of the disaster, and shows how he kept his faith. It celebrates hope, courage, and community.
“Maurice was a man of virtue,” says Dixon. “And with that virtue came the stubborn will to survive. He had no choice but to believe that he and his fellow miners would be rescued. He believed that if they just stayed awake, kept breathing and laughing, they would be rescued. And when the other miners would lose hope, Maurice would keep their morale and spirits up by entertaining them with song and humour. He would distract them from losing hope.”
The play touches on the racism embedded within the working class, but also shows how it was – to some extent – overcome. Dixon says Ruddick was always treated like an outsider until the earth tremor.
“But,” he explains, “because of his heroic deeds, it was a reminder that Maurice was the same as all of the other miners; he had a family to feed and he wanted to go home, just like the rest of them.” The miners experienced the same risky working conditions for the same low pay, “day in and day out.”
Dixon’s work as an actor and a musician gave him insight into the development of the play’s language. “The rhythm of dialogue in a play is very similar to the rhythm of verses in a song,” he says.
“I find walking around in my house and saying the text out loud helps to convince me whether a scene’s working or not. Sometimes, I’ll sing the text. See if it holds the same meaning. Being a musician and actor are tools I can use to expand my writing skills.”
While Dixon has written several plays, he connects to this play on a particularly personal level, as he comes from a background very similar to Maurice’s. Both of Dixon’s parents are from the East Coast; his father is Black and his mother white.
“Maurice was a person of mixed race, like myself,” says Dixon. “He was also a father who had 13 kids. My dad had 13 siblings. Maurice also frequented the church and knew hundreds of hymns by memory. My dad was an Anglican minister and my mother a hospital chaplain. Maurice wrote his own songs and played guitar. I write my own songs and play guitar! The more research I did on Maurice, the more I realized we had so much in common.
“It quickly came to my attention that I was destined to write this play.”