When Sharon Abreu performs excerpts from The Climate Monologues on March 27th, the closing day of the LA Women's Theatre Festival, her solo show with song will harmonize art and activism. Abreu channels the voices of a former coal miner from West Virginia, a teacher from Colorado, and a college sophomore in Montana, who've all taken up the challenge of educating their communities and demanding action on climate change.
Abreu now lives on Orcas Island off the coast of Washington State, but the idea of turning her talents to advocate for the environment started back in 1992 with a pumpkin festival in New York's Greenwich Village. That's where she signed up for a half-price membership to an organization she'd never heard of before. Next thing she knew, Abreu had joined Pete Seeger on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, doing hard, hot work on the boat and teaching people who came on board about the fish and plankton, the chemistry of the water, and the history of the Hudson River. As she marveled at how the Hudson was brought back to life by people in communities all along its banks, Abreu began to write songs about a range of environmental issues and was invited to join Seeger in concert.
She later began to attend meetings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development where she met people from all over the world who would later be featured in The Climate Monologues, including Robert Athickal, a Jesuit who runs the Tarumitra ecology center in Patna, India; and Maria Gunnoe who showed up from the coal fields of Central Appalachia, trying (unsuccessfully) to get help from the US government delegation because their so-called representatives in West Virginia were not helping them stop the devastating effects of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Abreu went on to interview a dozen community activists – often using phone and Skype for most because, much as she would have loved to travel to meet in person, she wanted to minimize her carbon footprint–and expenses, as she had no outside funding.
After producing two climate change shows with student performers, she decided it was time to perform one herself. She remembered Pete Seeger. "He had a way of connecting with people," she says. "He could talk with 1,000 people in an auditorium as if there were just 2 or 3 people sitting in his living room. And he could get them all spontaneously singing like a glorious choir." How would she connect?
It came to her when she appeared in a production of The Vagina Monologues: she could boil her interviews down to 5-7 minutes each, put them together, add some original songs, and so The Climate Monologues was born. In her full 70-minute show she portrays, among others, a former rodeo cowgirl, an anti-nuclear activist and radio talk show host, and a woman from the Yupik tribe on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska who tells how traditional life there is threatened by melting ice and permafrost and coastal erosion from storm surges.
In choosing which monologues to include here in LA, she was relieved that the decision was taken out of her hands. "The Festival people chose which portions of the show they would most like to have me do in my 20-minute slot."
Among the Festival selections is one with topical resonance, given the recent action of the Supreme Court–"politicians in robes," says Abreu. "Blocking implementation of the Clean Power Plan is, in a word, tragic. West Virginia’s political leaders, who are in the pocket of the coal industry, have kept working people in an economic stranglehold for decades." And so she will share the story of Ed Wiley, a grandfather and former coal miner who explains that tech-savvy people are there in West Virginia, but technology jobs aren’t. Abreu says his story illustrates how the coal industry works to keep other kinds of jobs out in order to keep people virtually enslaved. "Then the people can’t do anything about their mountains being blown up and their water being poisoned." (Maria Gunnoe's coal country story won't be performed but here's a taste of it)
Abreu is still adding new monologues and would love to connect with someone from one of the Small Island Developing States, like Tuvalu, Vanuatu or the Marshall Islands, already suffering from sea-level rise. At the same time, she wants to keep the runtime to about 70 minutes "because the show can be done without an intermission, and it leaves time after the performance for dialogue."
She stresses that though there's sadness in the stories she performs, there's also heart and spirit and hope. "We need to celebrate our achievements every step of the way and also to grieve what has been lost in all the precious, squandered time that we could have been addressing the problem of climate change."
At home on Orcas Island, Abreu and her life-and-creative partner Mike Hurwicz are active in the fight against the use of pesticides and other chemicals, protecting drinking water and marine life. A current campaign is the drive "to push back against numerous proposals by the fossil fuel industries to export millions of tons of coal and oil to Asia through our already heavily trafficked and narrow waterways."
Through their nonprofit organization, Irthlingz, Abreu and Hurwicz blend entertainment with environmental education. As she explains, "good information about climate change bounced off of people’s psyches. We had to connect with people on a deeper level, on a heart level and a spiritual level. The music and the stories help us to do that."
The LA Women's Theatre Festival kicks off with a gala on March 24th at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice 90291, followed by solo performances March 25-27th.
On the bill with Abreu on March 27th at 3:00 PM:
Debra De Liso in Beautiful, Terrifying Love. A personal, poetic, dangerously true–at times funny–story of a nightmarish childhood, Hollywood horror film career, and traumatic motherhood with her beautiful, talented and bi-polar daughter.
Rhonda Khan in Food. A rhythmic tale from New York of one woman’s addiction to food amidst societal pressures to be thin. Family, therapists, healers and gurus weigh in and diagnose her as she spits her truth about weight loss, gain, and healing.
To hear excerpts from The Climate Monologues that won't make it onto the Festival stage, and more songs (including sing-alongs), catch Abreu and Hurwicz with singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley in concert on March 23. Northridge Mobile Home Park Community Room, 19120 Nordhoff Street, Northridge. 5:00 PM for refreshments and mingling. Concert at 5:45. Admission by donation.