In Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions' new work about the ties between people and their land, the land is the rapidly eroding coastal wetlands of south Louisiana, particularly in the parishes surrounding the mouth of the Mississippi River. Audiences begin the experience at the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society Museum and are led into a forest abutting wetlands behind the center.
"We were thinking of doing a jazz funeral for the land," says co-creator and actor Nick Slie. "We wanted some sort of processional. We considered Lafourche Parish and Lafayette, but (collaborating artist) Monique Verdin is from lower St. Bernard. ... It's an incredible vantage point of what's going on in Louisiana."
In a clearing at the edge of the forest, audiences divide into small groups and each is led into the forest by one of the characters. Slie plays Tom Dulac, the son of oil rig and pumping station workers from Delacroix, a small fishing town devastated by hurricanes. Dulac tells his charges that 36 places were removed from Louisiana maps last year.
The show is not a nature walk, and that becomes abundantly clear as the groups convene at a Houma Indian-style thatched hut, where they are interrupted by a strange man in a wire mesh Cajun Carnival mask sitting in an armchair in the back of a pickup truck. He dangles a red suitcase full of cash like a pinata, and the characters lunge for it, all pleading for causes to save land or people. Dr. Carol Carl (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) advocates freshwater diversion plans, allowing for replenishment of sediments in wetlands cut off from the river by levees. Zelda Culotte (Lisa Shattuck) wants to use plastic bottles and other recyclable materials to rebuild barrier islands. Dr. Ozane (Pamela D. Roberts) says it's too late to save many areas and resources should be used to help residents relocate and begin new lives elsewhere.
There are many surprises as the characters reveal more about their lives and livelihoods and push further into the forest. Their stories become more personal, and the journey takes on folkloric and mythical overtones against the backdrop of a beautiful and changing natural setting. There used to be a cypress forest beyond the path.
"In less than 50 years, it's changed," Slie says. "The forest was so thick you couldn't see sun come through the trees in the daytime. But the saltwater intrusion has killed it."
Cry You One grew out of the success of Loup Garou, a work created by ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro and presented in City Park in 2009. It also touched on the connections between culture and land, but it was a mythical werewolf story, with religious overtones, about a Cajun man afflicted by a curse. It dealt with the temptations of money, trade-offs between industry and unspoiled lands, and some of the vices of port cities. The story's deeper meanings resonated with audiences elsewhere when the group toured with the show, including Kentucky audiences who saw similarities with the coal industry and mountain- top removal, Slie says.
ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro create ensemble-generated theater incorporating music, visual art, poetry and more. In this case, they reached out to scientists, environmentalists and local government officials while developing the story. Mark Davis, Tulane University law professor and director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, was invited to an early discussion and has been to several walk-throughs. He was happy to talk to the crew about science and policy, but he also was interested in the group's mission to make art about the issue.
"For all the news stories and master plans, and even lawsuits, it's always been my experience that until people care in a deep way, it's hard to make the kinds of commitments that are going to be necessary to save this place and our way of life," Davis says. "The measure isn't how many news hits you get. Have you made the jump into culture? We don't really learn facts and figures in the abstract. We don't convince people with nuanced arguments. What normally prevails is the best story. Stories are what endure from generation to generation; it's stories that connect people. ... If it weren't for John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, how many people would remember anything about the Dust Bowl?"
The production also required other sorts of cooperation. Lake Borgne Basin Levee District Director Nicholas Cali told them he had never been to a play when he arrived to see their proposal. He regularly evaluates permitting requests for land use around the levee system, but he had never received one for a theatrical production. After listening to the debates the work generated, he became a supporter, even personally helping with logistics and equipment, Slie says.
For Cali, there's nothing abstract about the loss of wetlands or the complicated issues of levee protection, which enables residents of St. Bernard Parish to get federal flood insurance, and thus some security in maintaining their homes. But there are personal issues for him, too.
"I have a son who's a year and a half," he says. "I can't wait to take him in the forest — and hunting and fishing."