Flint, USA poisoned water in Ibsen theatre play


Theatre director Purni Morell

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

Theater professionals address the Flint water disaster

Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play: A remarkable artistic event

15 June 2017

Written, directed and produced by Purni Morell, based on An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen

A remarkable cultural event took place last week in the devastated city of Flint, Michigan, whose 100,000 inhabitants have been systematically poisoned with dangerous amounts of lead and other deadly contaminants.

Actors from across the US, assisted by a British writer-director, performed Public Enemy: Flint, an adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, on June 8, 9, and 10 in the gymnasium of a former school.

Ibsen’s famed work concerns a doctor, Thomas Stockmann, who tries to warn the local authorities—including his brother, the mayor—about water contamination problems and is persecuted for his discoveries. Parallels to the present catastrophe in Flint are striking, and hundreds of residents from the city and surrounding area responded enthusiastically to the performances.

British theater directors Purni Morell and Christian Roe learned about the Flint water crisis in January 2016, while touring the US. In an interview, Morell explained to a reporter: “It’s not about doing a play about a water crisis in a city experiencing a water crisis—it’s about the underlying issues, like what made the water crisis possible in the first place. In the play, as in Flint, the water is a symptom of a bigger problem, and I think that needs to be investigated because it affects all of us, not just the city of Flint.”

Morell’s version follows the general outline of Ibsen’s play. Dr. Heather Stockman has ascertained through laboratory tests that the water in the town’s economic “salvation,” its Wellness Resort, owned by Mineralcorp, is contaminated with lethal chemicals and carcinogens.

Stockman tells the newspaper editor Oscar Hofford: “I mean contaminated, Hofford. Polluted. Impure. Mercury, in high proportions, chloroform off the scale—that means legionella; copper levels way too high…I’m saying the Wellness Resort is a danger to public health. Anyone who uses the water is endangering himself.” It turns out, she explains, that an industrial plant upriver is “seeping chemicals into the groundwater. And that groundwater is the same groundwater that feeds the pipes into the pump room.”

Hofford, at this point supportive of Stockman’s exposé, thinks the contamination speaks to broader issues: “What if the water isn’t the problem, but only a symptom of the problem?… I think this is the perfect opportunity to talk about what’s really going on. The vested interests, the—well, maybe not corruption exactly, but the system, Heather—the system that means these people can do whatever they like without any comeback.”

Audience members in Flint

The newspaper’s publisher, Stephanie Anderson (Ibsen’s Aslaksen), representing the city’s small business concerns, makes an appearance. The embodiment of petty bourgeois philistinism, Anderson’s watchword is “moderation” in all things. As a founding member of the Homeowners’ Association and the Temperance Club, she informs Stockman that the “resort is the backbone of our enterprise…Especially for the property owners.”

Anderson too is initially supportive of Stockman’s revelations, even suggesting that the doctor be recognized for her “contribution to the city’s welfare.”

Everything changes when Stockman’s brother Peter, the mayor, outraged by word of the doctor’s findings, bursts in and demands that the truth be suppressed to protect Mineralcorp’s interests. He claims that re-laying the pipes, to avoid the contaminated water, will cost $7 million and mean closing the resort for at least two years. “Do you have any idea, any idea at all, what this means? … This would finish us. We close the resort, everyone else capitalises on our idea, and in three years’ time, when, if, we reopen it again, this city will face ruin. And it’ll be your fault.”

In Ibsen’s play, Act IV is entirely taken up by a public meeting at which Stockmann denounces town officials and imparts “a discovery of a far wider scope than the trifling matter that our water supply is poisoned … the discovery that all the sources of our moral life are poisoned and that the whole fabric of our civic community is founded on the pestiferous soil of falsehood.” He passes on from that insight to a misguided conception, the defense of “isolated, intellectually superior personalities” and the notion that the “majority never has right on its side.”

In the Morell-Flint adaptation, the director and actors have decided to turn over this portion of the play to a genuine public meeting.

Tyee Tilghman (Horster)

Tyee Tilghman, the actor playing Jim Horster, a soldier who faces deployment to Mosul in Iraq, addresses the audience directly: “What we’re going to do now is change things up a little bit because in the next scene in the play, there’s a town meeting and what normally happens in it is that Stockman tells the people in the town about the water problem, and they call him an enemy of the people because they don’t want to hear about it—but we thought it would be more interesting to do this a different way, since we’re here and you’re here, and so we thought we’d set up a little town hall of our own.”

This prompted audience members of all ages, children, teenagers and adults, to discuss their appalling and inhuman conditions. One man described having to lug endless cases of water up flights of stairs. Some audience members reported owning houses that were literally crumbling. Others bitterly denounced the bullying of the authorities, who threaten to take their homes and even their children. Still others recounted how they had received water bills higher than their mortgages, and how the homes of protesters had been broken into by police who confiscated computers. Angry residents explained how they contracted health problems and even debilitating diseases from the poisoned water.

All of this was reinforced by the fact that signs in the restrooms alerted users not to wash their hands with water from the taps! Cases of canned water were stacked against the wall.

Sign in the restroom warns against using tap water to wash hands

When Public Enemy: Flint resumes, Dr. Stockman and her daughter, Petra, a teacher, both lose their jobs. Moreover, Stockman’s mother-in-law, Eleanor, the owner of the polluting plant, threatens the doctor and her daughter with financial disenfranchisement and destitution. Stockman lashes back at “hypocrites” like Anderson, with her “cheap, small-town flimflam,” and the townspeople themselves.

Petra has the final word: “This town is fine—it’s no better or worse than anywhere else. OK, there are things you can’t fix—you can’t fix that people with money can buy their way out of problems, and you can’t fix that some people care more about their position than what’s right—maybe you can’t even fix the water.

“I think you’re wrong about people, Mom. You said people get the government they deserve but I think people get the government government can get away with. And the government gets away with a lot, not because people are poor or because people are stupid—but because for years, for decades, we’ve eroded our schools, we’ve failed to educate our youth, we’ve failed to invest in ourselves as people.”

And she mentions that like her counterpart in Ibsen’s play, a work now 130 years old, she will start a school.

Public Enemy: Flint is a highly unusual confluence of a classic play, committed, talented actors and a motivated and engaged audience. It is proof, if proof be needed, that art is not something detached from social life. Important, enduring art by definition is work that does not remain indifferent to the crises and convulsions of its time. From that point of view, this modest three-day presentation, staged in a gym, was one of the most significant theatrical efforts in the US in recent years. The participants in the production, which was serious and thoroughly professional throughout, deserve the strongest congratulations and thanks.

The central role of Dr. Stockman was exceptionally performed by Los Angeles-based actress Michole Briana White. She was supported by an outstanding cast that included Charles Shaw Robinson from Berkeley, California as Peter Stockman, Madelyn Porter from Detroit as Stephanie Anderson, Briana Carlson Goodman from New York as Petra, Tilghman from Los Angeles as Horster, Meg Thalken from Chicago as Eleanor and Chris Young from Flint as Billing.

Public Enemy: Flint was the creation of British theater company fieldwork, in collaboration with Detroit Public Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, the Goodman Theatre (Chicago), Chautauqua Theater Company (New York), Berkeley Repertory Theater, People’s Light (Philadelphia), UM-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance, M.A.D.E. Institute, & the New McCree Theater, Flint.

Morell’s adaptation honored Ibsen’s play while eliminating its more elitist tendencies. The latter had a great deal to do with the situation in Norway in the 1880s, where, as Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov once explained, “a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.”

Plekhanov pays strong tribute to Ibsen’s social insight and instincts, in particular the dramatist’s abhorrence of the crude, grasping petty bourgeoisie. The Norwegian writer, observes Plekhanov, despises the “moral rottenness and hypocrisy of small town society and politics” and “the boundless tyranny of petty bourgeois public opinion.” He notes that “Ibsen hates opportunism with all his soul; he describes it brilliantly in his plays. Recall the printer Aslaksen [Anderson, in Morell’s play], with his incessant preaching of ‘moderation,’ which, in his own words, ‘is the greatest virtue in a citizen—at least, I think so.’ Aslaksen is the epitome of the petty bourgeois politician.”

The play’s passion and outrage continue to speak to present-day audiences, not least of all in Flint, whose working-class residents are the victims of corporate predation and government indifference or worse. In fact, when the mayor in Public Enemy: Flint proclaims that “the public doesn’t need new ideas; what the public needs is good, strong, time-tested method, not hare-brained theories that turn the world upside down,” one is tempted to shout out that the world, above all, needs to be turned upside down.

The corporate and right-wing attacks on the production of Julius Caesar by the Public Theater, part of the annual free Shakespeare in the Park season in New York City’s Central Park, illustrate the danger of artistic censorship and more generally that of authoritarianism posed by the Trump administration: here.

Once again thousands of residents in the city of Flint are being threatened with home foreclosures for failing or refusing to pay for water, which is still tainted with lead and other toxins. On Tuesday, an unelected financial board voted unanimously to overturn a temporary moratorium, paving the way for the city to issue tax liens on the homes of 8,000 residents who could then face home foreclosures: here.

James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, on film


This video says about itself:

I Am Not Your Negro Official Trailer 1 (2016) – James Baldwin Documentary

5 January 2017

Directed By: Raoul Peck

Writer James Baldwin tells the story of race in modern America with his unfinished novel, Remember This House.

On 10 June 2017, I went to see this film.

Unfortunately, not so many people in the cinema for this important work. It includes both historic footage of Baldwin, and texts written by him, spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson.

The subject is James Baldwin and three fighters for African Americans: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. Baldwin started to write a book, Remember This House, about these three, but it was still unfinished when he died. Baldwin noted that these three men were all different, yet had common ground. Eg, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X got closer to each other’s positions as time progressed.

Baldwin knew all three of them personally, and was deeply shocked when all three were murdered in the 1960s. He was older than all of them, and had expected that King, Malcolm X and Evers would all survive him.

The film is also about another person, younger than Baldwin, whom he survived: fellow African American author Lorraine Hansbury. The film tells how Baldwin and Hansbury in the 1960s had a conversation with Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General of the USA. Baldwin and Hansbury told Kennedy how African American children, when going to newly integrated schools, were attacked by white supremacists. They suggested that Robert’s brother John F. Kennedy, then president of the USA, should walk along these children into a school as a sign of government commitment to anti-racism. Robert Kennedy rejected that idea.

This hurt Baldwin, as school integration was why he had returned to the USA. He had left his native country for Paris because of racism. In the 1950s, he had returned as he had seen in a French newspaper a photo of a 15-year-old black schoolgirl, Dorothy Counts, harassed by racists in North Carolina in the southern USA. The film shows clips of white demonstrators against school integration, brandishing nazi swastika signs.

In the meantime, the FBI spied on Baldwin whom they considered a public enemy because of his criticism of racism. Baldwin’s 1,884 pages long FBI file attacked him for being gay. They thought they could use that against him; in a time when there was homophobia, including in more or less progressive sectors like the world of literature, sections of the black liberation movement, sections of the women’s liberation movement and sections of socialist movements. The FBI spied on Lorraine Hansberry and many other African American authors for many decades as well. Lorraine Hansbury, contrary to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers was not murdered: she died, 34 years old, from lung cancer, and according to Baldwin (not quoted on this in the film) from the stress in her strenuous fight against racism and homophobia.

Baldwin wrote that he had not joined the organisations to which his three murdered fellow fighters against racism belonged. He had not joined Medgar Evers’ NAACP. He was from the north of the USA, where in his experience the NAACP was too middle class, while he was from a poor background. He also did not join the Nation of Islam (NOI; Malcolm X’s organisation in the 1950s) or the Black Panther Party, ‘because I don’t believe white people are all devils’. That might have been a reason not to join the NOI; but it was inaccurate for the Black Panther Party, which militantly opposed white supremacy, not individuals who happened to be white; though the media often wrongly depicted them as ‘black racists’. Baldwin said he had a good white teacher at primary school, to whom he was grateful.

The film does not tell why Baldwin never finished the book Remember This House. I do know that in his later years, Baldwin suffered from cancer; which killed him in 1989, like it had killed Lorraine Hansbury.

The film does not stop with Baldwin’s death. It also includes recent scenes, eg, of the Black Lives Matter movement after the deaths of people like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The film mentions war, including a clip of a Martin Luther King speech against the Vietnam war, shouting: ‘Stop the bombing! Stop the war!’

Baldwin says on violence in the film: ‘If Israeli armed forces – I have nothing against that country, I am not anti-Semitic – use violence, they are often depicted as heroes in the USA. If Irish people use violence against British occupation, many Irish Americans and other white people see them as freedom fighters. If Poles use violence against Russians, they are often depicted in the USA as freedom fighters. However, if negroes, if black people, do similar things, then suddenly they are depicted as criminals or monsters’.

In the beginning of the film, Baldwin tells about films he saw when he was small. The ‘heroes’ were often white men killing native Americans. Young Baldwin identified with these ‘heroes’, until he found out that as a ‘negro’, white people, especially white people in authority like policemen, treated people like him rather similarly to those ‘Indians’.

The film has many clips from Hollywood movies. Nut just Westerns with much violence: also films, and TV commercials, in which everyone seems to be white and everyone seems to be happy. Baldwin comments that superficial imagery like this leads to narrow-mindedness and denial of social problems in the USA.

A sharply critical review of Baldwin as a political activist and of the film is here. The reviewer reproaches the film with saying too little about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; and saying these two came closer together, but not elaborating in what sense. It also criticizes Baldwin and filmmaker Peck for neglecting class and capitalism and their relationship with racism. That is not completely fair. In the film, Baldwin connects the white supremacist United States society to ‘the Chase Manhattan bank‘. Also, in the limited time of a documentary film one cannot extensively discuss too many intricate subjects. This harsh criticism of the Baldwin film is a bit surprising as the same site was rather more positive on another Peck film; and on yet another one.

Finally, Baldwin said that, in spite of being aware of many bad things: ‘I am an optimist; because I am alive’.

An important film worth seeing!

Cuban flamingos, tricoloured heron and Ernest Hemingway


Flamingos, 12 March 2017

We saw these beautiful Caribbean flamingos on 12 March 2017 off Cayo Guillermo island north of Cuba, after seeing a piping plover and egrets earlier that day.

Flamingos, Cuba, 12 March 2017

Before we saw the flamingos, we had seen a yellow-crowned night heron. And two black-necked stilts.

We reached the bridge to Cayo Guillermo.

Hemingway sculpture, 12 March 2017

On the bridge, statues commemorating the stay of United States author Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. Hemingway‘s books Islands in the Stream and The Old Man and the Sea are inspired by the islands north of Cuba.

Near the bridge, royal terns. And a ring-billed gull. And red knots.

Spotted sandpiper, 12 March 2017

And this spotted sandpiper. Not really spotted yet, as it was still in winter plumage.

Tricoloured heron, 12 March 2017

A tricoloured heron.

White ibises, 12 March 2017

Two white ibises flying. White ibises are locally called ‘coco’. Cayo Coco island is named after these birds.

Kite surfers and brown pelicans, 12 March 2017

A bit further, two kite surfers and two brown pelicans flying.

A snowy egret.

Stay tuned for more 12 March 2017 Cuban birds!

Nobel laureate Soyinka leaves USA in anti-Trump protest


This video from the USA says about itself:

28 October 2016

I will tear up my American green card if Donald Trump wins the American election says Prof. Wole Soyinka, first African Nobel Laureate.

From the Dhaka Tribune in Bangladesh:

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka relocating to South Africa

April 02, 2017

Nigerian born poet and playwright Wole Soyinka is leaving America and moving to South Africa to join the University of Johannesburg as distinguished visiting professor, reports Africanews.

Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986 and spent the last 20 years in the United States as a scholar in residence at New York University’s Institute of African Affairs.

In the wake of Trump’s election, however, Soyinka tore up his green card having decided he could no longer live in America.

“The horror of it all was to see these hundreds of thousands of people in the process of applauding when he [Trump] outlined his feelings. Then I just said: I do not want to live here,” he said.

Many in South Africa have high hopes for Soyinka to guide and lead them in their national debate on the decolonisation and the Africanisation of knowledge as the country attempts to overhaul its Eurocentric higher education system.

Russian poet Yevtushenko dies


This video says about itself:

28 October 2011

Yevgeny Yevtushenko recites his poem “Babi Yar” with music from ShostakovichSymphony No. 13. Kurt Masur & The New York Philharmonic.

Today, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has died. He was 84 years old.

His best known poem, Babi Yar, is about the mass murder by nazis of Jews in Kyiv, capital of the then German nazi-occupied Ukrainian soviet republic.

Translation of Babi Yar:

BABI YAR

By Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anne Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

**************************************************

NOTES
—–1 – Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by anti- Semitism.

2 – Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.

3 – “Internationale”: The [original] Soviet national anthem.

Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis: here.

Bertolt Brecht on nazi Germany


This video is called Poem From A German War Primer: Bertolt Brecht.

By Andy Croft in Britain:

Instructive indignation

Saturday 1st April 2017

The biting satire in Bertolt Brecht’s German War Primer is a lesson from history we can’t ignore, writes Andy Croft

THE CRIMES of the Third Reich were so great, wrote Bertolt Brecht in 1945, that the nazis had even succeeded in giving war a bad name.

“I am told that the best people have begun saying/How, from a moral point of view, the Second World War/Fell below the standard of the First. The Wehrmacht/Allegedly deplores the methods by which the SS effected/The extermination of certain peoples…

“Even the bishops/Dissociate themselves from this way of waging war; in short the feeling/Prevails in every quarter that the Nazis did the Fatherland/A lamentably bad turn, and that war/While in itself natural and necessary, has, thanks to the/ Unduly uninhibited and positively inhuman/Way in which it was conducted on this occasion, been/Discredited for some time to come.”

This tragic, mocking irony sets the tone of Brecht’s extraordinary War Primer, translated and edited by John Willett, which is republished by Verso Books at the beginning of next month.

Brecht started the book in 1940 when he was living in exile in Finland. Sticking photos from newspapers and magazines into his journals, he soon found he was adding short satirical verses to the photographs.

Many of the images are propaganda photos from what Brecht called “the Bayreuth republic, featuring Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Noske. Like John Heartfield’s AIZ photomontages, the effect is to subvert the original meaning of the images by suggesting their real context. Beneath a propaganda photo of Hitler in a trance-like oratorical ecstasy, Brecht wrote: “Like one who dreams the road ahead is steep/I know the way Fate has prescribed for us/That narrow way towards a precipice./Just follow. I can find it in my sleep.”

Because Brecht kept adding to this scrap-book until the end of the second world war, it serves as a kind of running commentary on the conflict, generals and politicians, the dead and the wounded, soldiers and civilians and the terrible destruction of European cities.

A military photograph of a German firing squad in France in 1944 appears above the following text: “And so we put him up against the wall:/A mother’s son, a man like we had been/And shot him dead. And then to show you all/What came of him we photographed the scene.”

To the photograph of a Russian woman grieving for her son, one of 7,000 Soviet civilians shot by German forces in Kerch in 1942, Brecht added: “I say all pity, woman, is a fraud/ Unless that pity turns into red rage/ Which will not rest until this ancient thorn/is drawn at last from deep in mankind’s flesh.”

First published in book form in the GDR in 1955, some of these poems were set to music by Hans Eisler, while others later turned up as part of longer poems by Brecht. None are great, but there is a greatness to the whole project in the “savage indignation” with which Brecht tried to address the brutality of WWII.

War Primer is comparable to the work of Goya, Kathe Kollwitz, Vassily Grossman or Tony Harrison, whose A Cold Coming about a dead Iraqi soldier clearly echoes Brecht’s verse here about a dead Japanese soldier.

And, although the book ends with victory in 1945, it also looks beyond the defeat of fascism in Europe.

Beneath a press shot of Hitler raging on a platform towards the end of the war, Brecht wrote: “That’s how the world was going to be run!/The other nations mastered him, except/ (In case you think the battle has been won) –/The womb is fertile still from which that crept.”

Fittingly, the final photograph is of university students in the GDR. Brecht wrote beneath the photo: “Never forget that men like you got hurt/So you might sit there, not the other lot./ And now don’t hide your head, and don’t desert/But try to learn, and try to learn for what.”

War Primer, price £12.99, is published by Verso Books on May 2