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Confronting Climate Injustice Through Theater

Equity in the Arts
Over a gray, rippling river, surrounded by dirt, trees, and algae, a section of gray bridge protrudes. A group of people are seen from a distance, standing on top of it. Attached to the bridge is a wire, from which an orange shopping cart hangs.

This post also appears on Artists & Climate Change and Superhero Clubhouse.

We need more bridges. The boundaries made by water and oppression are formidable, but art helps us across.

Take, for instance, the bridge being built by eco-theater collective
Superhero Clubhouse’s 2018-19 Fellows Shy Richardson and Karina Yager. Last year, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and caused a wave of displacement. Now, while those on the island work to restore their quality of life, many of their neighbors are starting fresh in New York City. Shy (a spoken-word poet) and Karina (a climate scientist) are creating an oral history performance project about climate displacement, connecting personal stories of hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico to those of hurricane refugees in New York.

Actually, there are several layers to this bridge, and many bridge builders. First, the refugees who traveled from Puerto Rico to New York, connecting the two islands through family and shared experience. Next, the Brooklyn-based social justice organization El Puente (literally “The Bridge”) and their sister hub in Puerto Rico called El Puente LCAN (Latino Climate Action Network), connecting Shy and Karina to Puerto Rican communities in both locations. And Superhero Clubhouse: we created the Fellowship to bring together individuals from disparate backgrounds like Shy and Karina, who were strangers when they applied. And then there’s Shy herself, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent with family in PR and a vision for connecting her two homes through theater.

This is the first of seven blogs in a series called “Building Bridges,” about the intersection of environmental justice and performance. These blogs will be responding to a monthly Salon taking place at The Lark in New York where our Fellows, Associate Fellows, and others in the Superhero Clubhouse community are exploring this intersection in their own ways. The next six blogs will be written by our Salon Officers, playwright Nissy Aya and dramaturge Megan McClain, who will reflect on the work and conversations that happen at each Salon as well as share their own perspectives on bridge building.

It’s September 25, our first Salon of the season, and the room is generous and electric. We mentioned that Shy and Karina are strangers, but everyone else in the room is, too. There are about a dozen of us hugged around a circular table, unsure and deeply listening. Nissy and Megan are expert at steering groups past the shallows of disorientation, and soon timidity makes way for excited exchanges, especially between Shy and Associate Fellows Aya Lane and Imani Denison as they discover that both their respective projects are exploring racial injustices surrounding water. Aya (a dancer/healer) and Imani (a filmmaker) are creating a multimedia piece called Drexciya, which takes place in a mythological underwater world inhabited by the children of pregnant African women who jumped ship during the mid-Atlantic slave trade, and connects this story to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Flint water crisis. In the coming months, Salon participants will engage in the Fellowship cohort’s development of these projects, and also share their own work or lead explorative exercises.

But not everyone in the room has a project. The Salon is also a space for communion: in the face of worldwide humanitarian and ecological crises, we need to personally and creatively engage with other people, to feel that neither we nor our ideas are alone. A participant mentions her interest in plant sentience, which leads to a group conversation about botanical art and the traditions of land as a healer and source of resistance for people of color, which leads to questions about who gets to go hiking and why it seems like wilderness recreation remains a predominantly white pastime. Sharing our art but also our different lived experiences is why we’re in the room.

At its best, theater is a bridge connecting people to another side of seeing: see Hurricane Maria’s impact as a tragedy of colonialism. See the people of Puerto Rico as resilient and innovative. See climate change as a complex new reality, rich with opportunities for imagination and equity. The other side of seeing is what allows us to hope — and then to know — that justice is possible. But how do we make this kind of theater, and who is it for, and who has access to it? These questions are also why we’re in the room.

We need bridges that connect those on the front lines of climate change with those who feel invulnerable to it. Bridges that make art inclusive and science accessible. Bridges that break the taboo of environmental justice as an island disconnected from the mainland of other social justice issues. This blog series is a glimpse into the work of making these connections.