Mary Kathryn Nagle is ambitious, brilliant and talented. She proves it once again in her new play showcased by the Native Voices Theater Company in Los Angeles. Fairly Traceable, which opened March 10. It addresses the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita and the relationship crisis experienced by two Native law students.
Native Voices at the Autry is the leading Native American theater company in the U.S. focusing on Native narratives, and is the only Equity theater company dedicated exclusively to developing stage productions by Native American, Alaska Native and First Nations playwrights.
Formed in 1993, Native Voices has helped launch the careers of over a dozen Native playwrights, such as Larissa Fast Horse (Sicangu Lakota), Drew Hayden Taylor (Curve Lake First Nations), and Randy Reinholz (Choctaw), Native Voices co-founder and Producing Artistic Director.
In Fairly Traceable, Mary Kathryn Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, brings together her personal worlds of law, tribal sovereignty, environmental justice and identity. All of her plays -- which to date count 11 -- reflect similar themes, drawn from her career as a lawyer as well as her experience as a descendant of the famous Cherokee leaders Major Ridge and his son John Ridge.
Fairly Traceable is told through the lives of two young American Indians, both law students at Tulane University in New Orleans. After meeting in one of their law classes, Randy and Erin, the only Natives in their program, become romantically involved just before tragedy strikes with Hurricane Katrina, and then Hurricane Rita a month later. Randy is Ponca from Oklahoma and Erin is Chitimacha, then a federally unrecognized tribe in the bayou of southern Louisiana. When Rita devastates the Chitimacha community of Pointe-au-Chien it sets into motion a relationship crisis that will have lingering effects for years to come.
But it’s not the fallout from the hurricane itself that causes the discord between Randy and Erin. The trouble is rooted in the couple’s differences as Native people with very different historical experiences and family circumstances.
The tensions begin when Erin joins their law professor in a legal clinic to bring a lawsuit against oil companies for dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Newly armed with the affirmation that greenhouse gases can be fairly traceable to the oil industry, they can potentially prove the oil companies are responsible for the new level of hurricane destructiveness that destroyed Erin’s home community.
Randy, meanwhile, surreptitiously decides to take a job at one of the oil companies his colleagues are suing. This conflict lays the groundwork for the redemption and resolution that must be worked out throughout the rest of the play.
One of the most powerful moments in the production comes with a creative use of technology, where the names of victims of both hurricanes are projected and read aloud, driving home the very real human cost of climate change.
Much of Fairly Traceable’s content is semi-autobiographical. Nagle was in law school at Tulane when the hurricanes hit, and when the Massachusetts decision was handed down. She even uses the name of the law professor, Professor Houck, who is a prominently featured character in the play.
In a post-production discussion with W. Richard West, Jr, Autry’s CEO, Nagle said that the first play she ever wrote -- while she was in law school -- was a way for her to process the trauma of the hurricane. As a student of environmental law, she said she was also inspired by the Kivalina case, which relied on the fairly traceable concept to sue Exxon for the loss of a Native village in Alaska due to flooding from rising sea levels. That case was lost in lower courts based on the argument that regulating greenhouse emissions was a political rather than legal issue that should be solved congressionally and administratively, not in courts, and the Supreme Court declined to hear it.
Fairly Traceable ran at the Autry through March 26 and was directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera. The lead actors are Kyla Garcia (Taino), Jason Grasl (Blackfeet), Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway), Kinsale Hurston (Navajo), and Chris Jorie as Professor Houck.