Cassandra Medley on writing plays about science, belief systems, making choices, harbored racism, fracking, and COMING UP FOR AIR

Cassandra Medley

Cassandra Medley

On Tuesday, March 28, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature a reading of COMING UP FOR AIR by Cassandra Medley. In 2006, her play Relativity was an EST/Sloan mainstage production. Reviewing the 2004 Magic Theatre production, The San Francisco Chronicle called it “a full-fledged drama bristling with challenging ideas and emotional complexity.” Challenging ideas are very much at the heart of COMING UP FOR AIR, which focuses on the dilemma of Joyce Davis Mitchell, an African-American fifth grade science teacher, who returns to her Ohio hometown energized from attending the Paris Climate Summit to find her convictions about climate change clashing with the pragmatic needs of her farming family. We had our own challenging questions for Cassandra about her play.

What inspired you to write COMING UP FOR AIR?

Climate change and the pollution of the earth, air, and water are, of course, crucial issues of our times, regardless of what the deniers insist on denying. I found myself intrigued by stories of "ordinary Americans" being forced to personally cope with and confront the controversies involved in the environmental debate. 

Dare I ask whether any aspect of the play is autobiographical?

The most autobiographical aspect of the play is it being set in the fictional town of Ephraim, a small town in Ohio, which is very loosely based on where I spent my summers growing up as a child. Unlike southern towns, Ephraim, like its actual counterpart, is a place where the few black families coexist, and even socialize quite comfortably with their white neighbors, at least on the surface. Of course, we are all now witnessing the provocations in our society that are cracking that surface wide open. The second autobiographical element is my fond remembrance of my own sixth-grade science teacher, Mrs. Jackson.

What kind of research into attending climate conferences, fracking and/or teaching science to children did you do?

COMING UP FOR AIR has been written over a period of three years during which I have extensively researched the hydraulic fracturing controversy, the work of worldwide climatologists, and been very inspired by the work of some of the grammar school science teachers across the country who are courageously educating their young students about fracking and climate change, as well as encouraging their students to become activists, often at the cost of their jobs – they were my inspiration for Joyce, the main character. I was particularly inspired by the 2015 Climate Change Summit held in Paris where the global participants courageously insisted on marching in the streets despite the devastating terrorist attack that had occurred only two weeks before.

Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (Mike Norton)

Schematic depiction of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas (Mike Norton)

Several of your plays – Relativity, Cell, and now COMING UP FOR AIR – concern the conflict between a character’s ideals and her devotion to her family. Why is this juncture so important to you?

Yes, that's true. I'm fascinated with the question of what constitutes personal integrity versus familial and/or social pressure. It's my Arthur Miller influence. We live in a time when it is imperative that people speak up and speak out. Of course, when has that ever not been the case? But now, we find ourselves on the brink of planetary catastrophe, so the personal risks involved in daring to speak up have never been more urgent.

I have always been moved by stories of people who are economically dependent on fracking, mining, and industrial jobs that cause pollution. It is often too easy for those of us in the comfortable and somewhat stable middle class to pass judgments on the choices of the working class and working poor. Job opportunities are increasingly scarce. Yes, one can say, “we need to create more environmentally friendly jobs” – and we do; however, tomorrow I personally have a good paying job to go to, so how easy and convenient it is for me to say that. In the case of my play, small farmers are increasingly losing their farms due to bankruptcy, and the small black farmers are becoming more and more extinct as time goes on. The family in COMING UP FOR AIR gives me the opportunity to play with all of these elements.

Your previous play, Relativity (2006), was a very popular EST/Sloan play. You currently teach playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. How does writing a play about science differ from writing a play about a non-science subject?

EST poster for Relativity (2006)

EST poster for Relativity (2006)

The challenge in writing a play about science is in the struggle to dramatize the science subject itself, whatever it may be.  As a playwright, you invent character-driven motivations that are generated by your characters’ emotional needs. You then want to fuse those needs with the actual scientific exposition in a way that does not sound self-conscious. In other words, just why is so-and-so mouthing all those facts and figures?  You hope to present characters who are involved in a compelling story that is generating genuine conflict while revealing complex emotional dynamics onstage.

Relativity concerned the little-known melanin belief system which contends that people of color have more melanin and that gives them more intelligence, better athletic ability, etc. COMING UP FOR AIR concerns what many may consider a much more dangerous belief system: that “green fracking” resolves all the environmental issues people have had with fracking. What concerns you about green fracking?  

I am concerned about the concept of "green" fracking precisely because it encourages the belief that fracking can now appear to have a pleasant face. As with Relativity, I am fascinated and disturbed by ways that false, suspicious or questionable claims are put forth by authorities who claim to be scientific experts, and who can be so convincing in doing so. For example, there are now five farm families in upstate New York who are petitioning Governor Cuomo to allow them to have profitable and "safer" green fracking wells on their property; they must petition because New York State has outlawed fracking, at least for now. The farmers want to save their farms and livelihoods. The question is: why shouldn't they be able to if they want to?

In your play, the Davises have been living in the Ephraim, Ohio farming community for several generations. Are we to understand that they are only now experiencing racism for the first time when Joyce’s stance on fracking clashes with the community’s?

Yes, the Davises have indeed been living in their small farming community for several generations. The current family has not had to experience the type of overt racism of the generations of their grandparents and great-grandparents – as is the case with my own actual small town family. Of course, nobody in the actual town is broadcasting  whether or not they voted for “Mr. T.” However, as James Baldwin summed it up, “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” As we are seeing in all kinds of examples now throughout the country, the interior legacy of harbored racism needs just the slightest provocation to rear up time and time again. In the play, Joyce's “inconvenient” stance is such a provocation.

From left, Kim Sullivan, Elain Graham and Melanie Nicholls-King in EST production of Relativity in 2006. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

From left, Kim Sullivan, Elain Graham and Melanie Nicholls-King in EST production of Relativity in 2006. (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

You’ve had your plays produced all over the country. How does the EST/Sloan play development process differ from other theater organizations?

I have had plays produced all over the country, and for me, the EST/Sloan Play development process stands out in the quality of the dramaturgy that Billy, Linsay and Graeme offer as a play develops. I am a very proud and grateful member of the EST Playwrights Unit which has nurtured and encouraged the numerous drafts of this play.

What’s next for Cassandra Medley?

Cell, which was in EST’s Marathon 2012, is to be recorded online for the Playing on Air series. I will be joining various activist groups to fight the present federal administration, plus teaching and writing continue as always, especially work on my “Writers Gym” book.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through March 30 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.