Beginning Thursday, March 1 and running through Saturday, March 3, the EST/Sloan Project is co-sponsoring with Barnard College’s New Plays at Barnard four performances of JEUNE TERRE, the compelling new play by Gabrielle Reisman, a satellite event of the 2018 First Light Festival. Performances will be at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre at Barnard College. Set on a bayou several miles southwest of New Orleans, JEUNE TERRE gathers together coastal researchers, politicians, shrimpers, checkout girls and members of a traveling theater company for a many-voiced exploration of how a community is coping with rising waters. The playwright has even more to tell us.
(Interview by Rich Kelley)
What led you to write JEUNE TERRE?
Years and years ago, I remember seeing a photo in National Geographic of a dude in South Louisiana standing up to his chest in water. He was standing on the roof of his childhood home. Two years ago, I applied for a Sloan grant to write a play about a coastal ecologist in Louisiana whose non-profit is pushing a restoration strategy that will put her own family's oyster fishery out of business. As that play was in its nascency, New Plays at Barnard commissioned me to write a big cast play for their program, so I smashed the commissions together and began developing it last season through Nashville Rep's Ingram New Works Lab.
Some plays come out easier than others. This one has gone through many different mutations. I knew I was interested in the onion peel of complications around the land loss crisis in South Louisiana. The rate at which the state's coastline is disappearing affects me directly as a New Orleanian, but in New Orleans, it’s easy to feel removed from the problem. We can't see the water in the way folks south of us can. At the core of most of my work are questions about our relationship to place — the responsibility we have to where we are from and how we know when it's time to leave. These sorts of questions are very much in play in communities like Jeune Terre right now.
Characters arguing over whether a slide should say “climate change” or “sea-level rise” seems very much of the moment. What kind of research did you do to write JEUNE TERRE? Did you work with any consultants? Is Jeune Terre an actual community in Louisiana?
My girlfriend, Giovanna McClenachan, is a coastal ecologist and oceanographer who spent the last few years as Science Director for a coastal restoration non-profit in New Orleans. She was endlessly patient and outrageously helpful when I came to her asking about how the science of land loss and restoration worked. She pointed me to articles, interviewees, conferences, public meetings, let me tag along with her and another ecologist as they took soil samples out on the marsh, and shared her own frustrations with the politics of coastal restoration. There's no way I could have written this play without her.
Through Gio, I learned early that Jean Lafitte, a coastal community I knew better than most, was set to lose the ring levee it'd been promised in the state's previous coastal protection plan. It felt like the state was giving Lafitte up to rising water. I remember stopping when I heard the news, sitting on someone's steps in the West Village and weeping. Over the next several months, I attended public comment sessions on the new coastal master plan throughout Southeast Louisiana, recording verbatim the arguments on both sides. Jeune Terre is an amalgam of many of those bayou towns. But it's also very much Jean Lafitte.
There’s a lot in the play about Jean Lafitte, the infamous privateer, and his brother, Pierre. How long have you been obsessed with them? Why?
Ha! I wouldn't say obsessed. What interested me about Lafitte was that the more I researched him the less I knew. Almost every account of the pirate contradicts another one. It seemed like there was a parallel between historians' claims that their account of Lafitte was the right one, and restorationists, politicians, and oil interests’ claims that their solution for the coast is the right one. I was also interested in the legacy of Lafitte, what it meant to make a hero out of a smuggler slave trader, how we claim a place deserves primacy because of its history, and how murky that history is.
While there’s a good deal of humor in JEUNE TERRE, the play engages some serious issues about our ability to recover from man-made and natural disasters. Erosion and other factors are causing the landmass along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to disappear at a rate of fourteen football fields a day. Can you shed some light on how man-made levees and canals have exacerbated this problem and how freshwater diversions may (or may not) help to solve it?
In a nutshell: canals exacerbate land loss by allowing storm surges from the Gulf to blast inland and wash away marsh. At the same time, the banks of these canals stop the natural tidal flow of more shallow water across the marsh, disrupting its natural hydrology. Without those shallow tidal flows, marsh behind the canal banks dries out and sinks — this is called subsidence. During the next storm, seawater will surge over those canal banks and then get trapped on top of this sunken land, flooding the area behind the banks with no way to flow back into the ocean. Knocking in the banks of unused canals (most of which were dug for oil exploration to wells that are now obsolete) would restore the natural tidal flow, and the marsh system would be able to recover from hurricanes more easily. However, oil and gas companies, which own many of the canals, are opposed to spoil bank removal or canal backfilling, fearing that if these methods prove effective, they also prove that canals caused the damage in the first place, opening the companies up to lawsuits.
Another theory for the reason the coast is vanishing so quickly has to do with the way the Army Corp of Engineers leveed the Mississippi River throughout the twentieth century. Before the Corp's levees, the Mississippi would regularly change its path, dumping huge swaths of soil from the rest of the U.S. across the Louisiana delta. This was good for the deltaic plain but bad for anyone living by the Big Muddy. Now that the Mississippi River's path is tightly controlled, some restorationists want to build a series of freshwater diversions — giant system of locks that can funnel overflows from the Mississippi River into the area it used to occasionally flood. The idea is that this overflow will deposit new sediment into the wetlands, helping restore some of the land that is being washed away by rising sea levels and canal-based saltwater intrusion. However, these huge influxes of water from the Mississippi will disrupt the marsh's current balance of salt and fresh water, with the potential to wipe out oyster and shrimp populations. Because of this, most oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers and other fishermen are opposed to diversions.
JEUNE TERRE features a theater troupe, The Thunder Bay Company, that travels around the country, and around the world, on a barge performing improvised works. In works like Storm, Still at Brooklyn Yard, you have written and produced site-specific theatre. And your company Underbelly “builds journey plays in forgotten spaces.” I’m wondering if the troupe in the play represents a fantasy of what you’d like to do – or something you’ve already done?
The Thunder Bay Company is a very loving nod to The Caravan Stage Company, a Canadian company that travels the world in a gorgeous wooden ship, performing original political circus opera for the towns where they dock. My brother worked with the Caravan as a rigger and engineer for most of his twenties. The first time I met the ship it was actually docked in a canal behind the abandoned Piggly Wiggly in Jean Lafitte. Caravaners work insanely hard building massive tourable productions. And the tours themselves can be grueling with bad weather, canceled shows, and cast members that jump ship in the middle of the night. But the Caravan endures. Its leaders, Paul and Nans, push on and pull it together and always somehow make it work. The show always goes on. That commitment to making theatre against all odds seemed so in concert with the folks in Jeune Terre, who rebuild their homes and businesses storm after storm.
JEUNE TERRE was previously entitled Pattern Seeking Animals. Did the change in titles reflect an evolution or change in the writing of the play? What changed?
The original title of my proposal for the Sloan Project was Black Bay. When I changed the title from Pattern Seeking Animals to JEUNE TERRE last summer, I was able to focus much more on the town and its struggles, and less on the idea of patternicity, a pseudo-science theory about the way humans handle threats and disaster. It was also a nod to the coast’s Cajun lineage and to the land itself. Made from sediment deposits starting only 7000 years ago and continuing until today, the Mississippi River Delta is the youngest land in the country.
My favorite characters in the play are Edmee and Aurelie, the Piggly-Wiggly teenage checkout girls who also provide the Foley sounds and even, at one point, join the theater troupe. Were they always in the play? What inspired you to create them?
My brother, Walker, lived in Jean Lafitte in 2005, working with the Caravan Stage Company in the summer before Hurricane Katrina. The Caravan's ship, behind the old Piggly-Wiggly, sat directly across the road from the new Piggly-Wiggly, both owned by this amazing Eritrean family, the Teweldes. Tewelde’s Piggly-Wiggly always felt like the heart of Jean Lafitte. Everyone would be in and out all day. The town still rotates around its axis. Whenever I'd come in, the Pig-Wig itself seemed to rotate around the checkout girls. In high school or just out, equal parts fierce and generous, they could slip into Cajun French with a customer, seemed to know everything about everybody, and were utterly nonplussed. I was totally intimidated by them. I wrote and threw out a lot of drafts of this play. When Auralie and Edmee entered it, it was clear I'd found the play's core.
What’s next for Gabrielle Reisman?
I go to Austin in April for a workshop performance at Fusebox Festival of Next Year People, a three woman piece I'm developing with writer-performers Katie Bender and Rachel Mars. Next Year People follows three artists who try and create a utopia on an abandoned island in the middle of the Atlantic. It's ridiculous and also we only know half of what it is yet, so that's terrifying in a good way.
In May, Flood City has a second production at Theater Alliance in D.C. I'm stoked for that.
And throughout the next year I'll be writing a new commission for Clubbed Thumb called Spindle Shuttle Needle, about women on the edge of an endless siege in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and laced with some of the darker, weirder Grimm’s Tales, which were all women's stories, told over work that itself was becoming industrialized.
The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.