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Deepwater, Center-Stage: Disaster Through Survivors' Eyes

<em>Gary Barthelmy, Oyster Fisherman</em> is a portrait by Reeva Wortel, used in conjunction with the production of <em>Spill,</em> a play that runs through March 30 at the Swine Palace in Baton Rouge.
Reeva Wortel
Gary Barthelmy, Oyster Fisherman is a portrait by Reeva Wortel, used in conjunction with the production of Spill, a play that runs through March 30 at the Swine Palace in Baton Rouge.

Eleven died and hundreds of millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico when BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010. But beneath the tragedy, there's a complex story about people's relationships to oil. That's what's explored in Spill,a new play by one of the creators of The Laramie Project.

Playwright Leigh Fondakowski had never been to southeast Louisiana when she took a boat ride out of Bay Jimmy, several months after the well had been capped. She was leading a workshop with a scientist, showing students her method of using extensive interviews as a basis for theater.

"We were parking the boat at the dock," Fondakowski says. "And they were autopsying dolphin bodies. And it's a very striking image to see a dolphin on the table, and to see all these body bags. And I knew almost instantly I was going to have to do something about this story."

Something like what she did with The Laramie Project, a collaboration with Moises Kaufman that used the real voices of people affected by the murder of gay teen Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.

What she found in South Louisiana was a culture cut off from even the rest of the state, just a few miles to the north. One of her first interviews with a woman in a bayou town made that clear.

"It's different here from up north," the woman told her. By "up north," the woman meant Baton Rouge.

Up north, people don't live so close to the land. Fishing, hunting, boating and drilling are all intertwined on the bayou. The reality that oil is part of everyone's everyday life hit home for Reeva Wortel, a visual artist who painted portraits of all the interviewees — portraits that are used in the production.

"There are many degrees of separation between the oil industry and our lives," says Wortel. And that can be a problem: "I think it's really easy to make moral judgments about the oil industry if you're in a bubble," she says.

Oil itself becomes a character in the play. At first, it's an invisible force driving the action. Fondakowski says that an oil well "is like a living thing. It has gas in it, and sometimes it kicks. It's like breaking a wild horse."

Later, in a tightly choreographed sequence, we see what happens when that wild horse isn't broken. Using survivor interviews and court testimony, Fondakowski re-creates the blowout.

"I knew I had to get out," one survivor says. "A tremendous explosion occurred. It blew me probably 20 feet against a bulkhead in that room. Both me and the door went to the other side of the shop. The power went out."

The play then explores the aftermath of the BP spill through the voices of oystermen who can't harvest their beds and who must work long, hard days to clean up the oil.

"I sit here taking phone calls, [and it's] 2 o'clock in the morning when a man tells [me], 'I feel like taking a gun to my head and blowing my brains out,' " says Amar Atkins, playing the head of an oysterman's group. "BP don't get those phone calls."

The playwright also interviewed victims' families. Silas Cooper, who plays a father who lost his son, muses, "I guess fathers and mothers have said this for as long as children have been killed working in coal mines and working on railroads and in industry on the high seas, and our message never seems to be heard."

That message is simple. "Don't let industry gamble with human life," says Keith Jones. His son Gordon, a mud engineer, died on the rig.

"Gordon is on my screensaver, and his picture is on my credit card," Jones says. "I do everything I can to surround myself with his memory."

His biggest hope for the play is that it renews the dialogue about profits versus safety that all but dried up once the Deepwater Horizon dropped from the headlines.

"The best way to remember and honor Gordon," says Jones, "would be to never accept what anyone says — oil company employees, executives, drilling companies' employees or executives, politicians. Never accept anything they say on face value. Always know that everything they say is motivated by the dollar."

And be skeptical, too, of the delusions many of us carry about oil, and our ability to extract ourselves from it, urges Fondakowski. In a discussion after a staged reading of the play in New York, she says audience members seemed to expect someone in the play to speak up.

"Why is no one saying we should stop drilling? When is the character going to come in and say we should stop drilling?"

But the fact that they don't reflects the kind of complexity Fondakowski was going for.

Jones, whose son Gordon's grave is the sunken rig, says he will go see Spill first as a scout for his son's mother and his widow.

"And I'll report back and tell them if I think there's anything about it that will be upsetting to them," he says. "I think they both would like to see it, but don't want to be put through an emotional wringer to do it."

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Eve Troeh was WWNO's first-ever News Director, hired to start the local news department in 2013. She left WWNO in 2017 to serve as Sustainability Editor at Marketplace.