Fri | Nov 22, 2019

Ominous climate change play at Rex Nettleford Arts Conference

Published:Friday | October 18, 2019 | 12:26 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer

There were more than 60 offerings – including workshops, lecture demonstrations, performances and exhibitions – at last week’s 2019 Edna Manley College of the Visual & Performing Arts (EMCVPA) Rex Nettleford Arts Conference. Not surprisingly, they provoked many and varied responses from their audiences.

The conference’s weighty theme – ‘The Arts: Intercultural and Cross-Cultural Exchanges’ – produced sessions with much thoughtful discussion. The ­exhibitions provided beauty. The dance and drama engendered joy and laughter.

But one production was ­downright scary.

I was in an audience, trapped – at least, that’s how it felt – in the School of Drama’s tiny After Dark Theatre while enveloped in a smoke-like mist gushing from a machine. Midway through the short play, an actor on stage declared ominously:

“When ambient temperature remains above 40 degrees Centigrade or 104 Farenheit, with high humidity, the body is no longer able to sweat. No ­sweating means no cooling. No cooling means our internal organs heat up, start to fail. Muscle cells are wrecked, spilling their contents into the bloodstream, overloading the kidneys. Proteins in the spleen start to cook. The blood-brain ­barrier that keeps pathogens out of the brain becomes permeable, allowing toxins to invade it.”

And we heard not only that the last four years were the planet’s hottest on record but that Kingston would be one of the first cities to experience “climate departure”. That’s when the average temperature in the city changes permanently (in an upward direction).

This will happen in the next 10 years, according to Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) CEO Susan Stanley. She addressed us after the play, ended in frantic screams from the other actor, and she was introduced by the director, Pierre Lemaire, a lecturer at the drama school. The play, Steamy Session in a Singapore Spa, was written by Damon Chua and featured drama graduates Chadrick Barnes and Rajeave Mattis.

DARK COMEDY

Lemaire described the play as “a dark comedy about rising temperatures and a human test subject”. He later told me that the production was a collaboration between his own local theatre group, Jamaica Alternative Theatre, and the international Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA).

Online research revealed that the CCTA, which was founded four years ago, is a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate-change plays presented biennially for United Nations climate-change meetings. CCTA 2019 coincides with the UN Santiago Climate Change Conference to be held in Chile in December.

The conference examines the ways in which the arts can be involved in the health and ­sustainability of education ­systems, economies, and societies. The Santiago conference will be informed by the outcomes of the UN Climate Action Summit held in New York last month and other summits.

Fifty professional playwrights, representing all inhabited continents, as well as several cultures and Indigenous nations, are commissioned to write five-minute plays about an aspect of climate change. The plays are then made available, worldwide, to producing collaborators interested in presenting an event during the project’s time window.

Beginning her talk with the bald statement, “Climate change is real,” Stanley spoke on the world’s rising temperatures and its effects on tropical islands like Jamaica. Lemaire spoke on the role artists could have in efforts to cope with climate change.

Stanley said that the phenomenon is caused mostly by the burning of fossil fuels and by man’s degradation of the forests. Unchecked, she said, it could cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and cost billions of dollars in damage.

The entire coastal community of the Caribbean could be destroyed by rising sea levels, she said, reminding us that most of the city of Kingston is at sea level and that parts of Portmore are below it. Government’s permission for bauxite mining to take place in plant-covered areas and for the building of hotels on beaches increases Jamaica’s risk, she said, but added that while the situation was depressing, it was not hopeless.

Lemaire closed the discussion with an exhortation to the artistic community to help governments to come up with the right climate policies. “Artists can show where the problems are and suggest ways of tackling them,” he said.