On May 19, the gentle woodlands of Yale’s West Campus will be transformed into the rugged foothills of Appalachia as Kentucky-based Clear Creek Creative launches the first of four outdoor performances of its environmental, spiritual and cultural parable Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man.
Rooted in the lived experiences of Clear Creek Creative duo Bob Martin and Carrie Brunk, Ezell explores themes of domination and resilience as the title character seeks to take advantage of an anticipated fracking boom and an opportunity to reconnect with the people and land around him. According to promotional materials, Ezell is, in part, a story of how climate change, the extractive resource industry and intergenerational trauma impact Ezell’s choices and decisions about his future, as well as “a ceremony that calls to our desire for connection and belonging, that reveres nature and binds us intimately within her, that invokes the resilience, love and lessons of our ancestors and generations yet to come.”
The play is presented by the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanity, Arts and Public Health Practice at Yale (HAPPY) Initiative and the Yale Schwarzman Center. The production is one of two outdoor performances taking place this month on West Campus. The other, This Place Is a Message, opens today (May 12) and runs through May 15. Both events are free and open to the public, but registration and tickets are required. You can find registration information on the Schwarzman Center website.
An original performance about public health disasters and what it means to live in them, This Place Is a Message highlights the urgent realities of climate change by weaving together letters from climate scientists about the emotional impact of studying climate change, efforts to warn future civilizations about long-range nuclear waste and experiences of health communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to draw on the emotional experiences of frontline communicators in both acute and chronic crises to establish the power of live performance as a tool for education and processing collective grief,” said Taiga Christie, M.P.H. ’19, an Arts and Public Health Fellow with the YSPH HAPPY Initiative and the Yale Schwarzman Center. “Over the past two years, all of us have experienced the challenge of communicating life and death information across divides. These projects ask us to reflect on that experience as it relates to climate justice and building new futures.”
Self-reflection is an integral part of Ezell’s immersive performance, which takes place over five acts. The hour-long play begins with “The Welcome,” where audience members are connected with a journey guide. From there, the small group is led on a short trek to the performance site amid woodland art and music. After the performance, the audience returns to its initial meeting place, where participants are invited to mingle, discuss the performance and enjoy a farm-fresh, locally sourced meal.
The intimacy of the performance, the sense of community that is created and the feeling of place and connection with the land all come together during the telling of Ezell’s story in a way that has deeply resonated with audience members, some of whom have been brought to tears by the show. Promoting health and raising awareness of issues in public health through the unique engagement opportunities offered by the humanities and arts is a core part of HAPPY’s mission.
Brunk, the producer of Ezell, and Martin, who plays the title character, are seasoned veterans of community storytelling and using the arts to inform, enlighten, inspire and engage.
“I think art and cultural experience gives us an opportunity to be emotionally connected,” Brunk said. “We often can become numb to the information and that data that we receive or to perspectives and opinions that do not align with our own. But when we make an emotional connection, a physical connection even a spiritual connection, it opens up other pathways for understanding and empathy.”
In presenting Ezell, Brunk and Martin said their intent is to disrupt patterns of domination in all of its forms – within ourselves, our relationships, our communities, lands and society. The work is also meant to help “heal what needs healing within each of us and among us” and “to inspire greater awareness of our shared humanity, common cause and interdependent liberation.”
Having lived through the experience of having a company ‘land man’ (essentially a hired speculator for the oil and gas industry) come to their door offering a lease for mineral rights to the land they call home, Brunk and Martin understand the conflicting perspectives about fracking. For some, it is an important source of livelihood. For others, it is a looming and dangerous threat to human and planetary health.
“It was important for us to tell this story in a way that was not demonizing and to not simply create a performance that was one-sided from an activist perspective,” Martin said. “It’s actually much more complex and dynamic. Ezell’s story gives people an opportunity to see why someone would choose to do this, and why people have made this choice over and over again, not just in Appalachia, but throughout our entire culture. And then we turn that question around for everyone who is witnessing and participating in the experience to really consider that question for themselves.”
One of those attending the performance of Ezell will be Nicole Deziel, Ph.D., an associate professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences) at YSPH and associate professor of environment and of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale. Deziel is an expert on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and has conducted extensive research on the industry and the environmental and human health risks associated with it.
“Storytelling is a great way to inspire conversation, empathy and action on an issue,” Deziel said. “It can touch people in a way that statistics can’t. It looks like this performance grew out of the lived experience of people concerned about the oil and gas extraction coming into their communities. Listening to communities is an important component of our scientific efforts on fracking. I am looking forward to the production.”