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From Heaviness to Hope

Equity in the Arts
Aya Lane kneels on the ground on The Lark's BareBones studio, in front of a laptop and speakers. Her arms are spread wide as she addresses the artists sitting in chairs around her.
Aya Lane shares an audio interview.

This is the second 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.

With the US midterm election still a week away, wariness and cautious optimism hung in the air at our second Salon on October 29th. Before diving into our Fellows’ projects, everyone shared what had been on their minds since the last gathering. From the upcoming election to the emotional and physical impacts of environmental injustices to asking how humans and trees handle the stress of climate change, a common theme emerged: Under the weight of so much uncertainty and trauma, where do we find relief?

This idea of heaviness and hope also runs through the work of our Fellows. Shy Richardson and Karina Yager, who are investigating the displacement of Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria, structure their process around weekly writing prompts focused on key themes or words. This week, they reflected on the idea of “category.” For hurricanes, the category system is used as part of the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale which measures sustained wind speeds and assigns ratings. Categories 1 and 2, with top speeds of 95 mph and 110 mph respectively, are said to cause mild to extensive damage. For category 3, wind speeds top out at 129 mph and for category 4 winds can reach 156 mph creating devastating damage. Any wind speed above that is called a category 5 and creates damage considered catastrophic.

These are useful scientific distinctions, but what do they actually mean to people on the ground? When a news anchor calls something a superstorm, a tropical cyclone, or a category 3 hurricane, does that impact our understanding or influence our reactions? The team sought to examine “category” not just in scientific terms, but also through a human perspective. They are looking at wind speed and material damage in concert with resilience, emotion and survival. As they begin their interviews with those affected by Hurricane Maria, the team hopes to learn not only what was lost, but also what was preserved and sustained, and how survivors are finding ways to redefine their lives.

Associate Fellows Aya Lane and Imani Dennison are also engaging with individual experiences as they create their multimedia performance piece, Drexciya, to examine water as a source of both oppression and healing. Aya played an audio recording of an interview Imani conducted with Clarence Roby who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Growing up in New Orleans, he says hurricanes were a part of life. He describes hurricane parties held on cancelled school days in which kids were outside “dancing in chaos.”

A levee break. Close up, a pile of broken concrete with a pile of dirt sliding down behind it. IN the distance, a bridge and bulldozer.
New Orleans, LA, August 30, 2005 - Several areas of the city are flooded due to the levee break. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA Photo
Katrina was different. Though a hurricane hit, he says “it was a man-made error that submerged us.” Structurally-flawed levees crumbled, flooding predominantly Black neighborhoods. About 80% of New Orleans was underwater and The Center for Social Inclusion reported that 44% of those residents in areas damaged by the broken levees were Black. In addition to the abysmal federal relief response, Aya referred to the troubling media coverage, where Black people were categorized as criminals and looters while white people were characterized as desperately hoping to provide food for their families. It’s wrong to refer to Hurricane Katrina as simply a natural disaster – it wasn’t just wind and water at play, but also economic inequality, racial segregation and structural racism. Roby recalls meeting up years later with a childhood friend, one he wasn’t even sure survived the hurricane, at Howard University. In his story of destruction, injustice, inequity and displacement, we were left with the beauty of this reconnection on a HBCU campus.

During the Salon, Superhero Clubhouse Co-Director Lani Fu talked about 
theater-making as a group enterprise with high risk (due to the vulnerability in performing and creating material for others) taking place in a safe space. She went on to explain that in such a space, great transformation and healing can take place because participants are allowed to change: their minds, their presumptions, their habitual ways of knowing. In a world of heaviness, theater 
is a place where we strive to build bridges to new understandings. Our Fellows’ projects are building important connections and engaging in conversations between science, environmental justice, personal and public histories, and creativity. And that’s a cause for hope.