Theater has often been a means to convey a particular message. Since ancient times, it has been used to teach lessons, understand important events, tell stories, and provide entertainment for its audience, and one company comes to Charleston this summer to start a dialogue with West Virginia…about water.
On January 9, 2014, an estimated 10,000 gallons of MCHM, a chemical used to clean coal, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River. The result was catastrophic, leaving 300,000 West Virginian’s in the Kanawha Valley with unusable tap water. Coincidentally, that same day in Brooklyn, New York, the New Brooklyn Theater, a company whose mission is to perform theater wherever theater is uniquely needed to move forward public conversations, opened a production of Edward Albee’s, The Death of Bessie Smith inside the Interfaith Medical Center in Bed-Stuy when it was threatened with closure. The company was founded three years ago by artistic director, Jonathan Solari, and he was already thinking about what the company might perform next, as news of West Virginia’s water crisis reached him.
“Immediately I was bombarded with emails from activists in New York who were from West Virginia," Solari said, "tweets and all sorts of things, photos of the brown water in the bathtubs. And I was just thinking, what is going on? So we did a little bit more research as information became available or information did not become available, and started speaking with people who were either from Charleston, from West Virginia, and started getting a sense of it.”
Solari and the rest of the New Brooklyn Theater chose Henrik Ibsen’s, An Enemy of the People hoping it would address the water crisis and act as a platform for the citizens of Charleston to speak out about what’s been happening. As part of their motto, the New Brooklyn Theater likes to perform in unusual spaces, and for this piece, they will be building a site-specific stage on the Kanawha River at the Public Access Dock in Porters Hollow in Charleston.
“We’re doing a new adaptation that we’re creating ourselves with our playwright, Jeff Strabone, who’s also on the board of directors of our theater company," Solari said, "so now we’re trying to ground this great story in West Virginia in a way that speaks directly to our audience and to this situation. We’re performing on an extension that we’re building up to the public access dock next to the Frontier building, so boats are gonna be going by and we’re not going to be able to stop that and that’s just going to be part of our storytelling. You have to embrace all that.”
An Enemy of the People deals with a man named Dr. Stockmann, who’s been seeing symptoms in the town that have caused him concern. Thinking it could be the water at the local baths that is the basis of the local economy, he runs a test, finding out that the water is being polluted and has been for the last ten years.
“So the play is about his fight to try to bring that truth to the forefront. The way into the story is through a similar situation that we’ve been experiencing here since January. At the heart of it, it’s a play about a man who has to discover and come to terms with how difficult it is to do the right thing, but we do that through the lens of polluted water,” Solari said.
To help make their performances come to life, the New Brooklyn Theater casts local actors of the area in which they perform to give the story a more genuine feeling by having actors who have witnessed the issues first-hand.
“It’s been eye-opening," Solari said, "you know, there’s only so much that we could do in terms of pre-production when we’re reading newspaper articles and listening to the radio. But to be on the ground first hand, to be able to collaborate with people that lived through it and continue to live through it and have those voices in the room as part of the collaborative process; that’s priceless to us.”
The key to the New Brooklyn Theater’s mission is creating a dialogue about current issues, and Solari says if they’re not trying to actually engage with their audience and directly addressing their concerns, then their not doing their job.
“When the play’s over, it’s not just where are we gonna eat right now, but actually something that you can carry with you and will hopefully empower our audience to take ownership for the decisions that are made that affect them. And to facilitate that conversation.”
An Enemy of the People will open on June 12th.