In addition to writing about political theater, I produce work and participate in collaborations that explore the art of activism. These creations take many forms, from theatrical events to curated conversations. Some are singular events and others are part of series that unfold over a number of years, including: “Climates of Change” (a pair of community-based plays about global warming); “Patriot Acts” (performative protests staged on government holidays with the Bad & Nasty Collective, which I co-founded), and “Performance Encounters,” civic dialogues about racial and gender equity, social justice, and the transformative power of the performing arts.
“Climates of Change” (2017-2019)
To better understand the effects our warming planet has on the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations, I produced two grant-funded community-based plays, Climates of Change (2017) and The Next Storm (2019), in collaboration with Civic Ensemble Theater and scientist Toby Ault. We devised the scripts in my course, Theatre and Social Change. The syllabus included lessons on earth and atmospheric sciences along with applied theater techniques. Our ensemble, a collective of students and local citizens, conducted interviews and participated in Story Circles, a form of community-based dialog. We co-wrote the first play, Climates of Change, which follows Zola Richard, a recent college graduate from Tompkins County, New York who returns home to find the family farm facing foreclosure after several poor growing seasons caused by extreme weather. Zola, a chemical engineer and climate activist, can save the property, one of the few black farms in the area, if she accepts a job with a Big Oil firm with a record of environmental violations. The play asks audiences how Zola can reconcile what she sees as her familial duty with her political convictions. This show was staged on campus and across the community, with each performance followed by a moderated discussion. The student who played Mother Earth, Dominique Thorne, stars in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever!
“The Next Storm” (2019)
Our second community-based climate play, The Next Storm, takes place in the year 2030 in Ithaca, New York, which has a history of epic weather events. As the flood waters rise, citizens debate whether to support the construction of a hydroelectric dam and floatovoltaic energy grid to fuel an affordable housing complex for flood victims, the majority of whom live in a historically Black neighborhood. These projects would displace hundreds of people (mostly white, middle-class denizens), demolish historic homes, and block recreational access to a beloved waterfall. The future is at stake as the ravages of climate change erode this community’s way of life, leaving a city wondering: Who survives? Who decides? What sacrifices to our personal comfort are we willing to make to ensure a sustainable future? And, how do we mobilize and maintain hope in the face of an extinction-level event? We collaborated on the script for this play with climate journalist Thom Dunn, and the production featured my friend and famed thespian, Rhodessa Jones. It was staged with lavish production values at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts in Ithaca, NY.
Patriot Acts: The Bad & Nasty Collective (2017-Present)
The Bad and Nasty collective is a loose knit coalition of academics, artists, media makers, web geeks, writers, rebels, and concerned citizens who, shocked and appalled by the results of the 2016 Presidential election, began to plot a grassroots guerrilla theater action for February 20, 2017 called Not My Presidents’ Day. What began as a small contingent of friends (performance artists Holly Hughes and Lois Weaver, tech guru Mary Jo Watts, and me) soon swelled to more than 1900 participants who staged upwards of sixty protest events around the country and across the globe. In performances of democracy that reverberated with the Women’s Marches, airport protests against the Muslim travel ban, spirited town halls on the Affordable Care Act, and rallies to denounce immigration raids, members of the Bad and Nasty collective staged ingeniously inventive patriot acts, spectacles of civic engagement and civil disobedience that dramatize participants’ desire for a more just and equitable world. They call attention to the limits of citizenship but also to a polity’s ability to contest and reshape the conditions and forms of social belonging.
I started this ongoing series, in the early 2000s, to foster civic dialogue about racial and gender equality. I have had the pleasure of hosting Pulitzer Prize, Tony, and Emmy award recipients alongside community-based playmakers and activists. I also collaborate with several local and national organizations committed to democratizing the arts, and society more broadly. I consider both modes of public engagement examples of “Performance Encounters.”