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A Courtship with Impermanence

Essay by

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change begun last April with this special series for Climate Week NYC. How does our work reflect on, and responds to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? I heard Nick Slie talk about the work of his Louisiana-based company Mondo Bizarro on a panel at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters a few years ago. I was struck by his sophisticated thinking about theatre, environment and community, and by his deep attachment to his home. —Chantal Bilodeau

“Mon amour, tu te rappelles de toi-même dans un territoire sauvage
my love, i’ll remember you a wild territory
a tumble of languages ran through you like silted water
lodged in your meander
laid your bones upon our mud
you stood in naked wonder at our sunsets, great tides
of bird, of insects and plants, of estuarine species
brackish waters teeming with untold life
fish and shrimp and oysters' mysterious doings
moving to and fro with each nocturne mystery
i’ll remember you a little boy
ancient history
no-one fathomed how much you’d have to give
they would rip it from you, eventually
bleed it from your downy vest.”

Wild Territory on Tour
These words were written by the prodigious poet Raymond “Moose” Jackson and are spoken by my character, Tom Dulac, towards the end of Cry You One. Tom Dulac spends much of Cry You One pleading with the audience and the land to remember themselves wild again. In Houston, TX, during the early morning hours between our second and third performances at the Counter Current Festival, after a torrential downpour, the bayou we were performing next to responded loud and clear, jumping its banks and flooding our set with several feet of water.

Suddenly, many of the themes of Cry You One (impermanence, rewilding, living with water) came rushing into reality. Next came the feelings—lots and lots of feelings. Those Houston flood waters delivered a scroll of memories to my mind’s eye: the face of my great-grandmother Julie Poche planting her shallots on the batture side of the Mississippi River levee; the cypress graveyards in Pointe aux Chenes, the faces of churchgoers singing old-bone hymns on Sundays. For the better part of three years, Cry You One’s deeply personal artmaking process had cajoled and inspired my courage about the realities of living with water. Yet here was the water at my feet and I was nowhere near prepared for it. Making art about floods and experiencing the flood are two vastly different things.

a community festival
The culminating community dinner of Cry You One’s three week residency at Clear Creek Festival in Kentucky, July 2015. In collaboration with On the Creek Ensemble's Land, Water, Food Stories project, we served over one hundred and fifty people a five-course, locally sourced dinner. Photo by Melisa Cardona.

The Reality of Water Where I Live
Louisiana is disappearing. In the last forty years alone, we have seen more of our shoreline fall prey to the waters lapping at our banks than any other region in the world. We are losing land due to our own flood control system, rising sea levels, the cutting of navigational canals, oil and gas drilling, and the mismanagement of Mississippi River freshwater and sediment.

Despite the astonishing amount of legislative and scientific responses to climate change and environmental catastrophe occurring in our region of the world, there are shockingly few opportunities for those on the front lines to have a voice in policy discussions. From Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Isaac to the BP drilling disaster, we have experienced firsthand how the response to these catastrophes failed to consider the wisdom, visions, and strategies of the communities most affected by them. The reality is that many of the most powerful voices in the fight to save coastal Louisiana are people with least amount of lived experience on the land they are trying to save.

We witnessed in the salons a clear way in which, through arts-based facilitation, we could catalyze emotional engagement in the pressing environmental issues of our region, creating space for transformative action across race, class, and sector.

Our Response
We created and continue to grow Cry You One, an interdisciplinary project of the New Orleans-based companies ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro that uses the stories, music, dances, and traditions of Southeast Louisiana to respond to our region’s interconnected struggles against coastal land loss, cultural loss, environmental racism, and displacement. Cry You One is a live, site-responsive performance and online storytelling platform and has been partnering with Gulf Future Coalition since late 2013.

Our theory of change holds that in order to address the ongoing effects of climate change on the Gulf Coast, we must inspire participation and leadership from the most impacted frontline communities. We must also break with the tired precedent of siloing cultural, policy-based, and scientific responses. By demonstrating the interconnectedness of these responses, we build inclusive strategies applying the full knowledge, vision, and resources of this region to our current environmental crisis.

Like most projects, the focus of Cry You One has deepened as the work has discovered itself. After our initial six-week run in the disappearing Central Wetlands of St. Bernard Parish, we received an invitation from Jayeesha Dutta to create a series of cultural organizing salons with the Gulf Future Coalition. Jayeesha, along with Rebecca Mwase, asked us to consider what voices were being privileged through our environmental movements and challenged us to address the deep environmental racism at the heart of coastal restoration resource allocation along the Gulf Coast. During the Spring of 2014, Cry You One and Gulf Future Coalition brought our complementary strengths in grassroots community organizing and artistic visioning into concert for five weeks across the five Gulf Coast states. These cultural organizing salons featured short performances of Cry You One, arts-based facilitation, food and story sharing, and policy information sessions which culminated in the Gulf Gathering, where attendees collectively created “Changing The Narrative: Gulf Future Action Plan,” later shared with community stakeholders, policy advocates, and government officials.

We witnessed in the salons a clear way in which, through arts-based facilitation, we could catalyze emotional engagement in the pressing environmental issues of our region, creating space for transformative action across race, class, and sector. As we build a stronger foundation for local and regional visioning, we are also working to connect our local voices to a broader national audience. Not only are we among the most deeply impacted, but following Hurricane Katrina and the BP drilling disaster, we are already the country’s symbol of, and laboratory for, culturally grounded restoration after disaster. All of this strengthened the belief that our work can be at the leading edge of this country’s response to climate change and related disasters.

a group of artists posing for a photo in the water
Cry You One cast in Central Wetlands behind the pumping station where the full performance premiered in October 2013. Photo by Melisa Cardona.

A Courtship With Impermanence
Julie Poche, my great-grandmother, took over and cared for an abandoned house in Convent, LA, squatting it for the remainder of her life. Recently widowed, she and her son Roger were very poor, living off what little they could grow or barter. She planted her crops in the rich soil next to the river, fully aware that sowing the land closest to the wild Mississippi had an inherent risk of flooding her food supply. This, for her, was a manageable risk, one taken in lieu of isolating herself from the wisdom of the land’s cycles. Julie did not see herself as distinct from nature; rather, an integral part of it. The dance with potential floods was her courtship with impermanence. She never tried to control the water. She let it come to her, she quietly walked towards it and, in this way, displayed the type of feral grace I find myself needing these days. I want to remember the land wild again, to have the courage to face what the water wants. But unlike my great-grandmother, what’s standing in the way of the water’s desires is not simply one woman’s crops, but the city of New Orleans and many small coastal communities. Who is going to broker the relationship between the water and us? How do we ensure that the wisdom of the people most deeply impacted by the environmental calamities we face is privileged in the solutions we develop?

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Thoughts from the curator

How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding?

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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Thank you, Nick, for sharing the full scope of how you partnered with Gulf Future to create those amazing salons. I, too agree that a measure of respect is due to the wildness of our environment. Thank you for putting that focus at the forefront of your work.