Works on Water: An Impression of ‘Voices from the Roanoke River’

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In the recent year, the Trump administration has flouted many environmental protection laws within its borders. In the international scene, the administration took the U.S. out from the Paris Agreement when even war-torn Syria, the only hold-out, signed it. The administration is obviously tone-deaf to what is happening to the environment. It is bad enough that catastrophes across the globe keep occurring, but to exacerbate it? At the rate that our carbon footprint is razing through this planet, what has been happening globally should frighten even the most adamant global warming denier. What we knew of our seasons no longer apply. Spring in Winter and Summer in the Fall. Bones and carcasses of unknown sea creatures washing on shores sometimes filled with plastic. The environment is changing and it is changing fast.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book The Sixth Extinction, outlines the major catastrophic events that wiped out entire species on our planet. There have been five major mass extinction events throughout history. We’re currently in the middle of one of another one due to our industries. She writes: “Human impacts on the planet have increased proportionately. Farming, logging, and building have transformed between a third and a half of the world’s land surface, and even these figures probably understate the effect, since land not being actively exploited may still be fragmented. Most of the world’s major waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated—in the United States, only two per cent of rivers run unimpeded—and people now use half the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff.”

Human impacts on the planet have increased proportionately. Farming, logging, and building have transformed between a third and a half of the world’s land surface, and even these figures probably understate the effect, since land not being actively exploited may still be fragmented. Most of the world’s major waterways have been diverted or dammed or otherwise manipulated—in the United States, only two per cent of rivers run unimpeded—and people now use half the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff. 
-Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction

The human impact on waterways is most troubling since three-quarters of the world’s surface is made of water. What can we do to stop what seems to be, literally, the tide of time? To borrow a phrase from AA meetings, the first step is admitting that there is a problem. Perhaps this is why there are organizations such as Works on Water focusing on bridging urban spaces, environmental concerns and public discourse through art installations, performance art, and forums to discuss our relationship with our coastlines. Partnering with Governors Island, Works on Water created a residency to provide “an incubator space for diverse investigations of water in the urban environment.”

One of this year’s selected residents is the theater collective Creative Traffic Flow, founded by DawN Crandell, Jeesun Choi and Kristin Rose Kelly. CTF was commissioned by the Clean Valley Council for their Earth Summit event to create a piece that examines the social and environmental impact of humans living by the Roanoke River to inspire others to protect the water.

I was invited to go to the first public reading of Creative Traffic Flow’s project Voices from the Roanoke River held at Nolan Park House 5B in Governors Island on July 15, 2018 in preparation for their presentation on November 2, 2018 at Virginia Western Community College. I must shamefully admit that prior to this invitation, I had never been to Governors Island even though I’ve been living in New York City for more than half of my life. A few minutes away by a ferry ride from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 in Brooklyn, Governors Island is its own enclave. After disembarking and taking a brisk five-minute walk to a row of older houses, the designated space for the presentation was atmospheric. A giant canoe decorated the front steps. Inside, the peeling paint and the rustic time-worn look of the house provided a site-specific venue for CTF’s presentation.

After introductions, they showed a projection of the Roanoke River map spanning from Virginia to North Carolina. Then they showed other images related to the River as they layered the images by reading the text they created from their interviews and research. One of their interviewees was with Danielle DeHart, an Environmental Specialist from the City of Roanoke Stormwater Division who mentioned that there are people who think of the Roanoke River not as its own entity, but as an invaluable commodity: “there’s always this kind of lingering thought of like, ‘Oh you don’t go in the Roanoke River. It’s just a dumping site’ (because) there’s a lot of places still where people do that and so it’s not a place—it’s not an asset to the city. It’s just something that runs through it. It causes flooding. It’s just something that’s over there.”

What was particularly striking was their use of archival photographs of the devastation caused by natural disasters. Seeing photographs of the Roanoke River waters rising to sweep cars off the streets punctuates the point that nature is a powerful force despite the human desire to conquer nature.

When asked what the biggest thing the team learned in doing this project, Kelly answered: “You can measure a river’s health by what bugs inhabit the water. Turning over a river stone harms an entire habit of fish and bugs. Stormwater pollution is something we all contribute to and should be mindful of how to keep pollution out of stormwater drains.” Choi added: “Working on this play really made me realize how intricate the relationship we all have with rivers are – as human beings and as members of the ecosystem. When one link in the cycle goes awry, it affects the whole system. Someone once said that we like to say ‘Save the Earth’ when it comes to ecological activism, but really, it should be ‘Save Human Beings.’ I really related to that because it showed that the Earth has the power to persist, while humans have the power to destroy ourselves. It really puts into perspective the power of nature. This project made me realize that again.” 

As for me, seeing the seeds of this project as well as knowing about the Works on Water program made me realize that we need more public discourse on the impact we have on the places that we inhabit. It is not enough to learn about how we affect the spaces where we live in through books and media. Nature is not a virtual place. It is a living space. We need to go to the water and respect it for its life-giving elements. We need to go to the water and not wait for the water to come to us. By then, it might be too late.

Interview with Monet Hurst-Mendoza + Excerpt

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Monet Hurst-Mendoza is an accomplished NYC-based playwright from LA. Rising Circle Theater Collective, Looking Glass Theatre (NYC), Amios, Playwright’s Playground at Classical Theatre of Harlem, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and many others have developed her plays. She is a current member of the 2017 Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater and is a 2016-2018 Van Lier Fellow at New Dramatists. Monet was a 2014-2016 WP Theater Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow and has held residencies with The Other Mirror, The MITTEN Lab, and SPACE on Ryder Farm. 

Hurst-Mendoza debuted her play, Veil’d, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center in November. Just before the premiere, Hurst-Mendoza spoke with The Brooklyn Review’s Cherry Lou Sy about playwriting, Veil’d, fighting xenophobia in the age of Trump, pie, and the Dodgers. An excerpt from Veil’d follows

Cherry Lou Sy: Why theatre? Why are you so passionate about it?
Monet Hurst-Mendoza: 
I am passionate about theatre because it is an in-your-face, moment-to-moment experience that can’t be replicated the same way twice. Theatre can be entertaining, but it can also call for brutal honesty and introspection. I love that theatre can be a political act just by its existence. But what compels me most about theatre is that it is a communal gathering, at once vivid, volatile, and necessary — and it can spark inspiration that can change the course of someone’s life.

CLS: What would you like people to know about you?
MHM: 
I love to bake pies, but I rarely ever eat a pie I’ve made myself. I really revel in the baking process and then enjoy watching others eat this dessert I’ve made with my own two hands. I guess it’s very similar to playwriting.

CLS: What do you think makes a “good” play?
MHM:
I always say, “I know it’s a good play if I’m afraid to show it to my grandmother.”

CLS: You’ve had so much success with developmental programs in NYC: the Van Lier at New Dramatists, the Public’s Emerging Writer’s Group, and the WP Playwright Lab, to name a few. How were these programs helpful to you as an artist? Do you have any advice to other playwrights who would like to apply?
MHM: 
I’ve been very fortunate to have been admitted to these wonderful programs — I absolutely think they’ve helped me grow as an artist. Each group is unique, but they have all provided me with a sense of community that I think is so vital to what we do.

Artists need other artists to survive. Community provides opportunities and a wealth of resources you may not have previously had access to.

I got in to all of the fellowships I’ve been accepted to after several rounds of denials. When you’re starting out, it can feel like you have to apply for everything all the time. You don’t have to put that momentous pressure on yourself, That is absurd.

I constantly have to remind myself that it’s better to submit a quality application than a rushed one, and that it’s okay to wait to apply if I don’t have a play or personal statement (hate those) that is quite ready for what is being asked for in the application guidelines. Keep working, keep marinating, and set a goal to apply the following round. If you’re passionate about a program and you get denied, keep reapplying for as long as you deem it useful to you. In the meantime, find opportunities to create work and build community close to home. Start your own writer’s group, participate in one-off play festivals, etc. Stay tenacious — you got this.

CLS: Congratulations on Veil’d, your world premier production at Astoria Performing Arts Center in New York. Why is this work important now?
MHM: 
Thank you! I thought the production was very exciting. Veil’d was the first full-length play I ever wrote, so it’s poetic that it was also my first world-premiere.

The play is a modern-day twist on the Rapunzel fairy tale. It focuses on an Afghani couple that immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan at the height of Taliban rule to create a new life for themselves. After difficulty conceiving, they gave birth to a daughter, Dima, with a rare allergic reaction to the sun. As a result of her illness, the young girl becomes more sheltered and finds safety and comfort in wearing her mother’s old burqa. Though her parents worry about her future and are dismayed at her choice to wear the burqa, as it symbolizes the life they escaped, we as the audience get to watch how Dima grows into young adulthood with the help of some secret friends.

As much as this play is about first love, friendship, and self-actualization, it also examines what it means to be an American in today’s climate. Trump’s Muslim Ban is just one of numerous examples of the caustic effects of xenophobia that impacts the lives of many wonderful people in our communities. That is not the America I want to live in. So, as a playwright, I pick up my pen to engender understanding, hope, and empathy through truth in my storytelling. During our rehearsal process, we emphasized the importance of upholding the narrative of a Middle Eastern family that was not rooted in fear, judgment, or alienation. The Mansour family is just like any other you might encounter, grappling with questions of parenting and identity as they work to create the stability and happiness we as Americans promote and strive for. If the American dream is meant to belong to all, then it is our responsibility to set places at the table for everyone.

CLS: Can you talk about one defining moment that influenced you as an artist?
MHM: I saw Soho Rep’s production of Blasted by Sarah Kane in college. Sarah Benson exquisitely directed the production. I rushed an evening performance without having any knowledge of the play beforehand, except that it came highly recommended by my playwriting teacher. I was seated in the front row, which was a really intense seat location for Blasted. There is a moment in the play where the setting of the first scene, a nice hotel room, collapses. When it happened, a piece of prop ice from a champagne bucket hit my foot. After that, I knew this play wouldn’t be like anything I had ever experienced before. After the show was over, I was shaking, inspired, and in tears; I couldn’t physically move from my chair. That play, that production, changed my entire perspective of what theatricality is and can be. It blew my mind.

CLS: Anything else you might want to add?
MHM:
 I’m a Dodgers fan so I gotta shout out my boys for all the hard work they put in this past season. #GoBlue

 

Read an excerpt of Veil’d here: Veil'd