Actor Fehinti Balogun knows that theater can mobilize people towards climate action, because that’s what he has done for him.
In 2017, while preparing for a role in “Myth,” a climate parable, he started reading books about climate change and became alarmed at the unusually hot summer he was experiencing in England. The play itself called on him and the other actors to repeat the same mundane lines over and over, to the point of absurdity, as their surroundings terrifically fractured around them – the ridged walls of oil, the stove on fire, the freezer oozing water.
The whole experience changed her life, Balogun said. Suddenly, nothing seemed more important than tackling the global crisis. Not even land the head of a West End production (a long coveted dream) of “The Importance of Being Serious”. His growing anxiety made him feel like he was experiencing a real version of the “Myth” in which society repeated the same old scenario even as the planet fell into chaos.
“Knowing everything I’ve done made me angry with the world for doing nothing,” Balogun, 26, (“Dune”, “I can destroy you”) said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t understand how we weren’t upset.”
That sense of urgency is what he said he hopes to convey to audiences on “Can I Live?” », A new play he wrote, performed and created with the Complicité theater company. A filmed version of the play, which also features supporting actors and musicians and was originally intended as a live performance, was screened on Monday as part of COP26, the United Nations climate meeting. in Glasgow. The resulting artwork is as innovative as any play to emerge during the Covid-19 era: initially it seems like just an intimate Zoom session with Balogun, but evolves into an explosive mix. spoken word, animation, hip-hop and dialogue.
The hour-long production, which the Barbican Center has made available to stream on its website until November 12, combines scientific facts about how the greenhouse effect works with the story of Balogun’s own journey into the climate movement. He also emphasizes the gap between the predominantly white environmental groups he has joined and the experiences of his predominantly black friends and family.
Throughout the show, Balogun answers phone calls from family members about issues seemingly unrelated to the centerpiece of the room, asking when he is getting married or why he left a bag in the hallway. at home. Although at first it seems like they interrupt Balogun’s main narrative of ‘shows, shows, shows’ as he sings at one point, their interjections hammer home one of his central ideas: if the movement is unwilling to prioritize someone like his Nigerian grandmother, he misses the point. Climate action, in other words, is for ordinary people with everyday concerns.
“The aim is to make popular activism accessible and to represent people of color and people of the working class,” he said. To that end, he interweaves his own story with that of Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned against destructive oil extraction on behalf of his Ogoni people. “Very often we don’t talk about the Global South,” Balogun said. “We are not talking about the communities that have been fighting this fight for years.
Although Balogun is the only theater artist on the official COP26 program, he is certainly not the first playwright to tackle climate themes. Climate Change Theater Action, an initiative of the nonprofit Arctic Cycle, was created to encourage theatrical creation that could draw more attention to COP21, the United Nations climate meeting in 2015 that culminated in to the historic Paris Agreement. (The theater group has never been officially affiliated with any of the annual COP meetings.)
Since its creation, the group has produced 200 works which have been performed in front of 40,000 people in 30 countries, said its co-founder, Chantal Bilodeau. The organization commissions plays on environmental themes, remunerates the authors and then provides the scripts free of charge to theater companies, schools or any other group that wishes to stage readings or productions.
The first year, Bilodeau said, they ended up with “a lot of depressing parts.” Now they’re trying to steer playwrights away from dystopia and toward visions of a liveable future, and encourage those who direct the works to pair them with programming that helps audiences better understand the issues.
Lanxing Fu, co-director of the nonprofit Superhero Clubhouse in New York City, devotes some of her time to those who will be most affected by a warmer planet: the next generation. Through Superhero Clubhouse’s Big Green Theater after-school program, run in conjunction with the Bushwick Starr and the Astoria Performing Arts Center, students at Brooklyn and Queens public elementary schools are learning about climate issues and writing plays in response to what ‘they learn.
More than a decade after the program began, Fu said that what is most striking about the student’s plays is how young writers instinctively understand a fundamental truth about the climate that escapes many. adults: to find long term solutions, we will need to work together.
“A huge element of climate resilience is in the community we build and the way we come together,” she said. “It is always very present in their stories; it’s often part of how something resolves.
Queens-based TV playwright and screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry also spends a lot of time reflecting on children’s roles in the movement. His play “The Lotus Paradox,” which premieres in January at the Warehouse Theater in Greenville, SC, asks: What happens when children are constantly being told that it is their job to? save the world ? Like much of Fortenberry’s work on television (she is a writer on “The Handmaid’s Tale”), “The Lotus Paradox ”includes the subject of climate change without making it the singular center of the story.
“If you make a story about anything, anywhere, and you not having climate change in it is a science fiction story, ”she said. “You made the choice to make the story less realistic than it otherwise would have been.”
It is a feeling also shared by Anaïs Mitchell, musician and author of the musical “Hadestown, ” which reopened on Broadway in September. In his account of Greek mythology, Hades is portrayed in the song as a greedy “oil and coal king” who fuels his industrialized underworld hell with the “fossils of the dead”. Above the ground, the main characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, suffer from food shortages and brutal weather that is “either scorching heat or freezing cold”, a framing inspired by the headlines on climate refugees.
It’s worth fighting intentionally with climate narratives in theater, not only because they make plays more believable, Mitchell said, but also because theater might just be one of the best tools for dealing with such themes. . Like Orpheus trying to put things right with a song that shows “how the world could be, despite what it is”, Mitchell sees theater as a powerful tool to help us imagine our path to a better future.
“The theater is able to open our hearts and our eyes to an alternative reality to the one we live in,” she said.
This is why Balogun – although he notices it more than once in “Can I Live? “ that he is “not a scientist” – said he believed he had an equally crucial role to play as any climatologist. “Scientists are begging artists and theater makers to help get this message across,” he said. “And there is a need for it more than ever. “