By Henry Godinez, Resident Artistic Associate, Goodman Theatre, Chicago
[This introduction is published in the subscription-based, industry-aimed new play e-book platform StageReads LLC founded by Meredith Lynsey Schade and Jody Christopherson. StageReads launches the last week of July 2012 with publication of Caridad Svich’s The Way of Water. This introduction is reprinted with Henry Godinez’s permission. For more information about StageReads pls visit http://www.stagereads.com]
In the United States, in this age of 24 hour news networks, the shelf life of even a major disaster is somewhere between that of fresh fish and a gallon of milk. Unless of course that fish comes from the Gulf of Mexico, in which case it could last much longer, like say, a good sex scandal. Without the luxury of being able to count on the scrupulous nature of mainstream American journalism alone to keep pivotal events alive in our collective memory, the only sure way to chronicle our mistakes of the past in order to prevent their return in the future is to enshrine them in art. Fortunately such is the case with the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which is now lovingly and movingly enshrined Caridad Svich’s searing new play The Way of Water.
The BP oil spill remains the worst marine drilling disaster in our nation’s history, gushing nearly five million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and devastating thousands of miles of fragile wetlands, beaches and commercial fishing areas. After two years, too many questions remain unanswered, though it is evident that negligence due to cost cutting efforts on the part of BP was certainly at the heart of the accident, which also incidentally, killed eleven men when their Deepwater Horizon platform exploded. Two years later scientists are beginning to see the lasting effects of the spill in an alarming number of mutated fish, crabs and shrimp, while dolphin and whales continue to be found dead at almost double the normal rate.
Within that all too brief network news worthy shelf life of the BP oil disaster, there was time to speculate about the economic ramifications; the cost of lost revenue to the fishing and vacation industries, property values, and even the cost of gas at the pump. There was the occasional tugging at the heart strings story about the after effects of the spill on the coastal areas and the wildlife, the now all too common televised scenes of volunteers scrubbing water fowl covered in thick crude oil. But rarely is a disaster like the BP oil spill sexy enough to have a shelf life that allows for the consideration of its long term effects on human beings. Then again it could simply be that my more cynical self contemplates the possibility that some nefarious and hugely powerful unseen group of select individuals simply maneuver it that way, after all, that would be bad for business. The disaster may have vanished from the headlines and the airwaves but the after effects are ominously still in the water and slowly rising to the surface.
Skepticism and paranoia aside, it nonetheless remains the task of the artist to, as Hamlet says, “hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time, his form and pressure.” In The Way of Water, Caridad Svich holds a powerful human mirror up to reflect the less glamorous edges of society. Not one that reflects the images of wealthy landowners along the coast whose stretches of pristine sand beaches and multimillion dollar vacation homes have been degraded by tar balls, but the average working class people whose livelihoods and very lives are compromised by their dependence on water contaminated by dispersants which linger long after the crude oil is no longer visible. It is a play about four friends who are as much a part of their particular environment and the nature that has sustained it, as those wildfowl that wash up encased in crude oil.
The play delicately evokes the image of common man Jimmy Robichaux, a fishing man from way back, and his struggle to simply carve out an honorable living around the waters that have nurtured his family for generations. He is a beautifully drawn, profoundly human character, wrestling with old ways and new demons. Jimmy’s personal struggles are manifested so honestly within the larger context of the BP oil spill that the play never feels like an indictment, at least not in the moment. This is a play about a group of friends just trying to get by in a world whose promises and dreams have all passed them by. It is also a play about taking action, about realizing that sometimes just speaking out can make a difference. But the play’s great strength lies in its humanity.
Having grown up in the south, in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana, I know the ring of authenticity in a true southerner when I hear it. I know the sounds, the idiosyncratic choice of words, the tempos. More importantly, I know the sound of humility and honor in a southern voice and in all these case, Caridad has clearly done her homework and created characters that ring true. Certainly honor is not an exclusively southern trait but in my experience, in the south it is a trait that is not exclusive to class or wealth either. This inherent, passionate, stubborn adherence to honor is one of the most compelling and integral motivating factors in The Way of Water. It is the rope at the center of the characters’ personal tug-a-wars, it is at the center of the conflict of the play, the very thing in each of the characters, but especially in Jimmy, that drives them to act. It is an essence that Caridad has made painfully real.
Many a great play has been written about corporate negligence and devastating catastrophes but what makes The Way of Water so compelling is the way it exposes the after effects of such sensational events in the most real of human terms. Given the way our society seems content to turn a blind eye to the huge power of corporate financial influence, as made evident for instance in the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, it must remain the task of the artist to sound the alarm bell when long term profits take precedence over the seemingly short life of a man. Yet at its best, theatre must be more than a political or social protest. For Hamlet’s intention I’m sure was not just to show “the age and body of the time, his form and pressure”, but to actually instigate change. The Way of Waterdoes that very effectively as all good art does, by representing humanity so truthfully and universally that we cannot help but see ourselves at the center of the story.