Amid Climate Talks, an Actor’s Call to Action Unfolds Onstage

The actor Fehinti Balogun knows that theater can mobilize people toward climate action, because that’s what it did for him.

Back in 2017, while preparing for a role in “Myth,” a climate parable, he began reading books about climate change and became alarmed by the unusually warm summer he was experiencing in England. The play itself called for him and the other actors to repeatedly run through the same mundane lines, to the point of absurdity, as their environment ruptured terrifyingly around them — the walls streaking with oil, the stove catching fire, the freezer oozing water.

The whole experience changed his life, Balogun said. Suddenly, nothing seemed more important than addressing the global crisis. Not even landing the lead in a West End production (a long-coveted dream) of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” His growing anxiety made him feel as if he were living a real-world version of “Myth” in which society kept repeating the same old script even as the planet descended into chaos.

“Knowing all that I did made me angry at the world for not doing anything,” the 26-year-old Balogun (“Dune,” “I May Destroy You”) said in a phone interview. “I didn’t get how we weren’t revolting.”

That sense of urgency is what he said he hopes to pass along to audiences in “Can I Live?,” a new play that he wrote, stars in and created with the theater company Complicité. A filmed version of the piece, which also features supporting actors and musicians and was originally conceived as a live show, was screened Monday as part of COP26, the United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow. The resulting work is as innovative as any piece of theater to emerge during the Covid-19 era: Initially it appears to be just an intimate Zoom session with Balogun but evolves into an explosive mix of spoken word, animation, hip-hop and dialogue.

Balogun in “Can I Live?,” which he conceived and wrote. The play, a mix of spoken word, animation, hip-hop and dialogue, can be streamed online through Nov. 12.Credit…David Hewitt

The hourlong production, which the Barbican Center has made available for streaming on its website through Nov. 12, combines scientific facts about how the greenhouse effect works with the story of Balogun’s own journey into the climate movement. It also focuses on the gap between the largely white mainstream environmental groups he joined, and the experiences of his primarily Black friends and family.

Throughout the show, Balogun fields phone calls from family members about issues seemingly unrelated to the central thrust of the play, asking him when he’s going to get married or why he left a bag in the hallway at home. Though at first it seems as if they are interrupting Balogun’s primary narrative about “emissions, emissions, emissions,” as he sings at one point, their interjections hammer home one of his central ideas: If the movement isn’t willing to prioritize someone like his Nigerian grandma, it’s missing the point. Climate action, in other words, is for everyday people with everyday concerns.

“The goal is to make grass-roots activism accessible, and to represent people of color and working-class people,” he said. To that end, he interweaves his own story with that of the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who campaigned against destructive oil extraction on behalf of his Ogoni people. “So often we don’t talk about the global South,” Balogun said. “We don’t talk about the communities who’ve been leading this fight for years.”

Though Balogun is the only theater artist on the official COP26 schedule, he is certainly not the first playwright to grapple with climate themes. Climate Change Theater Action, an initiative of the nonprofit the Arctic Cycle, was created to encourage theater-making that might draw greater attention to COP21, the U.N. climate meeting in 2015 that resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement. (The theater group has never been officially affiliated with any of the annual COP meetings.)

Since its inception, the group has produced 200 works that have been performed for 40,000 people in 30 countries, said its co-founder, Chantal Bilodeau. The organization commissions plays with environmental themes, paying the writers and then providing the scripts free to theater companies, schools or any other groups that want to stage readings or productions.

The first year, Bilodeau said, they ended up with a “whole lot of depressing plays.” Now they try to steer playwrights away from dystopia and toward visions of a livable future, and encourage those staging the works to pair them with programming that helps audiences get a deeper understanding of the issues.

Superhero Clubhouse’s after-school program, Big Green Theater, helps produce works focusing on climate issues. One such piece, “The Mystical Jungle and Luminescence City,” being filmed above, was written by fifth-grade students in Queens and is now on YouTube.Credit…Rachel Denise April

Lanxing Fu, co-director of the nonprofit Superhero Clubhouse in New York City, spends part of her time focused on those who will be most affected by a hotter planet: the next generation. Through Superhero Clubhouse’s after-school program Big Green Theater, run in collaboration with the Bushwick Starr and the Astoria Performing Arts Center, public elementary school students in Brooklyn and Queens are taught about climate issues and write plays in response to what they’re learning.

Over a decade after the program began, Fu said that what is most striking about the students’ plays is how instinctively the young writers understand a basic truth about climate that evades a lot of adults: to find long-term solutions, we’ll need to work together.

“A huge element of climate resilience is in the community we build and how we come together,” she said. “That’s always really present in their stories; it’s often part of the way that something gets resolved.”

The Queens-based playwright and TV writer Dorothy Fortenberry also spends plenty of time thinking about children’s roles in the movement. Her play “The Lotus Paradox,” which will have its world premiere in January at the Warehouse Theater in Greenville, S.C., asks, What happens when children are constantly receiving the message that it’s their job to save the world? Like much of Fortenberry’s work in TV (she’s a writer on “The Handmaid’s Tale”), “The Lotus Paradox” includes the subject of climate change without making it the singular focus of the story.

From left, the actors DeBryant Johnson, Jason D. Johnson and Dayanari Umana during a workshop for “The Lotus Paradox,” which debuts in January at the Warehouse Theater in Greenville, S.C.Credit…Andrew Huang

“If you’re making a story about anything, in any place, and you don’t have climate change in it, that’s a science-fiction story,” she said. “You have made a choice to make the story less realistic than it would have been otherwise.”

That’s a sentiment also shared by Anaïs Mitchell, the musician and writer of the musical “Hadestown,” which reopened on Broadway in September. In her retelling of Greek mythology, Hades is portrayed in song as a greedy “king of oil and coal” who fuels his industrialized hell of an underworld with the “fossils of the dead.” Aboveground, the lead characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, endure food scarcity and brutal weather that’s “either blazing hot or freezing cold,” a framing that was inspired by headlines about climate refugees.

It’s worth intentionally wrestling with climate narratives in the theater, not just because they make plays more believable, Mitchell said, but also because theater might just be one of best tools for handling such themes. Like Orpheus trying to put things right with a song that shows “how the world could be, in spite of the way that it is,” Mitchell sees theater as a powerful tool for helping us imagine our way into a better future.

“Theater is capable of opening our hearts and our eyes to an alternate reality than the one we’re living in,” she said.

That’s why Balogun — though he remarks more than once in “Can I Live?”that he’s “not a scientist” — said he believes he has just as crucial a role to play as any climatologist. “Scientists are begging for artists and theater makers to help deliver this message,” he said. “And there’s a need for it now more than ever.”

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