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A new play reveals the far-reaching consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill


Leigh Fondakowski
The Ensemble Studio Theatre, New York, NY, USA.

Few questions provoke a stronger response than those that address the future of energy. Recent controversies surrounding large-scale oil pipeline projects, such as the Dakota Access or the Keystone XL, underline an ever-present tension: Society’s overwhelming dependence on oil results in unacceptable risks to environmental and human health on the one hand while promising fabulous profits and “oil independence” on the other.

SPILL, a new production written and produced in a partnership between the Ensemble Studio Theater and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project, offers a powerful reminder that neither the debates nor the profoundly uncertain risks at their center are new. In matters of our interconnected human and natural fate, contemporary debates over oil sources and supplies simply accentuate how perilously short our collective memory can be.

On 20 April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling and exploration rig was completing operations at Mississippi Canyon block 252, about 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. It drilled 3 miles below the ocean floor, a depth that leaves precious little margin for
error. In the span of a moment, a catastrophic explosion set in motion the chain of events that then-President Obama eventually called “the worst environmental disaster the United States has ever faced.”

SPILL recounts these events from an entry point in the tiny Texas town of Blessing. It is here that we first meet Shelley Anderson, played by Molly McAdoo. Shelley is the widow of Jason Anderson, one among the 11 people who perished in the blast that started it all. The play then unfolds in a brilliantly rendered mosaic of interview transcripts, court proceedings, and media coverage that detail the complex drilling operation and the layered social worlds embedded in it. Lives lost on the rig transform from casualty statistics into human beings, whose full and complicated lives are reanimated through the voices of family members and communities.

With equal care and attention, the production guides viewers to reconsider the might of the geophysical entities from which oil itself is extracted. When characters speak of the well, they do so with reverence. In the play’s first act, Lillian Miller, a former oil-rig worker played by Kelli Simpkins, memorably advises the audience, “A well is a living thing. It’s a real live creature. … And the job of the rig worker is to listen to it. … It’s like breaking a wild horse. I mean, if you don’t have control over this creature, this living creature, it will kill you.”

SPILL explores in meticulous detail the pressures that brought an otherwise delayed drilling process to its perilous point of rupture. Yet by tracing the massive scale and scope of offshore drilling, it also points beyond a single event, confronting its audience with the enduring question at its heart: What does it actually mean to satisfy our endless appetite for oil? Are we willing to assume the attendant risks, even in the absence of a clear understanding of what those risks are?

The play’s second act follows the millions of gallons of oil that surged into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, decimating estuary ecosystems during the season of spawning and renewal. The incalculable environmental impact now assumes center stage: As a monstrous oil slick made its way to the coast, characters describe nothing short of “a war zone.”

Yet the oil slick is never disconnected from human livelihoods, lifeways, and bodies. Late in the play, a long narration by Jorey Danos (played by Kelli Simpkins), one of the thousands of small-scale fisheries workers who joined BP’s massive cleanup operation, explains how the project of saving the Gulf’s biodiversity and ecological vitality left its own toxic legacy. Dispersant chemicals, and insufficient protection from exposure to them, added yet another injury to coastal communities already seriously dispossessed. Danos’s voice comes to index the new forms of marginality and harm that accompanied even the most valiant dimensions of the Deepwater catastrophe. There is nothing clean about our overwhelming dependence on oil—not even cleanup itself.

Playwright Leigh Fondakowski has written and directed an unforgettable play that gives fundamentally human contours to an iconic environmental tragedy. The production is a thoroughly researched, brilliantly acted, and fully engaging opportunity to hear, see, and in large measure feel the usually invisible costs of human dependency on oil. It moves far beyond the facts of the event, recounting the largest marine oil spill in history as a tragedy that has never fully ended.

SPILL lays bare the inseparable connections between human and natural fates, confronting us afresh with the extremely dangerous mission of an everyday life dominated by oil extraction, transportation, and consumption. It is a holistic portrayal of a catastrophe that need not be repeated.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Departments of Environmental Studies and Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.