by Peter A. Campbell, Associate Professor of Theatre History and Criticism
We have been lucky to have Caridad on campus a few times this year, as she was selected as a Schomburg Visiting Artist at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, at the border of New York State and about 25 minutes drive from the George Washington Bridge. My students were already familiar with her work, as she had visited several classes and did a talk on her translation of Blood Wedding, which was performed on campus in March.
When Caridad first gave me the play, in January, I was struck by the voices and their political power. The tension in communication, the intensity of the relationships, in a time of tension and intensity. The struggles to love under the pressures of life. The universality of it.
But what happened in our reading was that the actors and the audience saw the specificity of these renderings, and especially of their place and time. And that specificity allowed them to also see the specific political and social problems that the play addresses.
Mahwah means “meeting place,” and fulfills that definition in many ways. Historically it has been a meeting place for armies in battle and in making peace; it is still a boundary line of sorts for the Ramapough Mountain Indian Nation and the states of New Jersey and New York.
But most resonant in terms of The Way of Water is that Mahwah is where the Mahwah River meets the Ramapo River, which runs through some of the most populous areas of northern New Jersey. These rivers have a history of being polluted, most famously by a Ford plant in Mahwah that produced more than 6 million cars and dumped most of its waste in the river. The Ramapo River downstream of the plant was designated a Superfund site in 1982, and continues to be polluted with lead, arsenic, and other chemicals that still seep into the groundwater and the river basin. More recently, Hurricane Irene caused several oil trucks from upstream in Sloatsburg to be dumped in the river. The entire basin, which eventually empties into New York Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, remains highly polluted, and with every new incident of flooding there are warnings of polluted groundwater, parks, and playgrounds.
So our reading, then, in this context, had its own specificity. We live in a place where the discussion of water and its safety is second nature.
The students reading the play, and those who made up most of our audience, were quite struck by the way that the play roots out political and public activity through the everyday lives and conversations of the characters. The characters are genuine, idiosyncratic, unusual, poetic. And powerful. The actors were excited to be able to give them voice. And the response from our audience was of shock and recognition, of the currency of the play and the issues at hand. As one student audience member noted, the staged reading was a powerful tool in engaging the audience to think about the spill and its effects without being preachy or pedantic:
"It is a story about…people in helpless, life-or-death situations. The drama was realistic and believable leading me to wonder how much research Svich put into her work. Were the characters based on real stories that she had read about or seen on the news? Even though it was only a reading, the actors were still able to deliver strong performances that enhanced the serious dilemmas of the four men and women. The dialogue was naturalistic in the way that average people would talk about the spill and their problems.
Despite my enjoyment of the material, I never became so completely immersed in it that I forgot about the big picture. None of the drama enfolding in front of me would have occurred if not for a man-made disaster. Instead of performing it as a full play, the four actors simply sat on stools and read from scripts…The lack of theatricality is a constant reminder to the audience of the play’s messages. It never…allows you to forget about the spill and its effects.
I was also impressed by the knowledge I was able to obtain without realizing I was being taught. As ridiculous as that sounds, I never knew of the hazardous effects of the chemicals that were used to clean up the area and disperse the oil. A 16 year-old boy was killed in the play by these chemicals. Again, by cleverly working this point into the never-unrealistic conversations, the play was able to inform without preaching, for which I was quite grateful.”
This was a special experience for our campus and our community, one that gave us the chance to learn about those distant but not so far away. We are grateful to Caridad and No Passport for giving us the opportunity.
The Way of Water by Caridad Svich was read at Ramapo College’s Adler Theater Berrie Center for the Arts on April 10th, 2012. The cast included Christopher Kent (Jimmy), Vanessa Rappa (Rosalie), Frank Hughes III (Yuki) and Melissa Mugica (Neva). Directed by Peter A. Campbell with sound by Nick Cornwell.