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Brooklyn theater company adapts classic play to address W.Va. water crisis

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette
Matt Dray, Andy Weyenberg, Eryn O’Sullivan, Dave Ward and Aaron Gumm of the New Brooklyn Theater will perform a play at the old C&P boat ramp dock that ties in with the chemical spill this winter in Charleston.

The members of the New Brooklyn Theater didn’t come to Charleston to preach. They came to open a dialogue that starts with the chemical spill into the Elk River Jan. 9 and goeswell, it’s hard to say where. It could be about how people are supposed to balance commerce with safety or about who are people supposed to believe: the government, the media, political activists?

That dialogue starts tonight when the New Brooklyn Theater Company opens an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” a play about the discovery of water contamination in a small community and how different forces react and act on that knowledge.

The plot may sound familiar, which is what brought the New Brooklyn Theater Company to Charleston.

Part of the theater company's mission is to “stage theatre wherever theatre is uniquely needed to move forward public conversations.” It seemed to them that a conversation needed to be had in and with Charleston.

“In political discussion, the tendency is to simplify,” New Brooklyn Theater Company co-founder Jeff Strabone said. “We do the opposite. We have a very high estimate of people’s intelligence. We talk up.”

Strabone said that when the chemical spill occurred in January, New Brooklyn Theater had just opened on what would become a seven-week run of Edward Albee's “The Death of Bessie Smith” inside the Interfaith Medical Center in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

“The hospital wasn't making much money because it serves poor people,” he said. “It was slated to be closed.”

They brought the play to the hospital to draw attention to what the community was losing and why they felt like it needed to be saved.

They were only supposed to have a limited run, but Strabone said the hospital asked them to keep going.

Seven weeks later, local government found the money to keep Interfaith Medical Center open.

“I'm not saying that was because of us,” Strabone said. "But we contributed."

Strabone said while “The Death of Bessie Smith” was running in Brooklyn, he was following the story in Charleston.

“There really wasn't a lot about it at the time, but I read too much, and I saw the story.”

It reminded him of Ibsen's play. He saw parallels between the Norwegian playwright's drama and what was happening in West Virginia.

Strabone said he pitched the idea to the company's artistic director, Jonathan Solari, who jumped at it.

New Brooklyn Theater is a modest operation and staging the play has been a massive undertaking. First, Strabone had to adapt the play, which is three hours long and was written in 1882.

“I looked at several adaptations,” he said. 

He even contacted the holder of the play’s rights in Germany, but there were no reduced versions — at least, not in English.

So, Strabone adapted the story and updated it.

“I changed some things here and there, but I think it speaks to what the people of West Virginia have seen,” he said. “The play follows the plot.”

This version is about an hour long and is influenced by Solari and the company's design team, who started coming to West Virginia in March. The group met and spoke with residents.

Solari said, “We picked people's brains and even spoke, early on, to the DEP.”

Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the chemical spill, he added, had no interest in talking to them.

The director said they also experienced some of what was happening in Charleston firsthand.

“It was a lifestyle change,” he said. “The new normal of having to brush your teeth using bottled water.”

People in the area, he said, were very welcoming, and most of the company has been staying with some friends in Roane County.

“We're very grateful to our hosts,” Solari said.

They watched legislation wind its way through the House and then chose a time to do the play when they thought it would have the most impact. This summer, state government is scheduled to draft new regulations for chemical storage along the river.

“We wanted to provide a forum for citizens to speak openly about the situation at a time when decisions are being made,” he said.

It also had to be held outside and on the river.

“I just couldn't see having it indoors,” Strabone said. “It needed to be near the river.”

The play, they explained, is still sort of a work in progress. Each performance will feature a talk-back segment between the audience, the cast and invited guests.

What happens after the play is over, they say, is in the hands of the people.

Reach Bill Lynch at or 304-348-5195.

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