“Oil is not a toxin.” Just one of the unforgettable messages that
resonated at our Art-to-Action workshop in Norco on January 18th for
34 artists and activists participating in the Network of Ensembles
Theaters MicroFest. We took a trip that wound through the refinery, to
the mostly empty community of Diamond, drumming and singing with the
Guardians of the Flame, and then to the River Region Performing Arts
and Cultural Center.
As we headed out I-10 from New Orleans in a yellow school bus, Colette
Pinchon-Battle of Moving Forward Gulf Coast and I described to the
out-of-towners and Louisianans alike the scope of the petrochemical
industries impacts on our communities, health and society: 35,000
wells, 10,000 miles of pipeline, an accident per day at the
refineries, Cancer Alley, big oil company checks to complicit
politicians, weak regulatory efforts. Colette left her corporate law
job to her community after Katrina to help fight for progress in a
whole range of issues facing her community. One of them: the fact that
oil is not categorized as a toxin, which exempts it from significant
health regulation (for instance, BP oil spill cleanup workers were not
required to wear safety gear).
We approached Norco, and the Valero and Motiva refineries loomed in
front of us; we turned down Prospect Avenue and drove along the public
road that squeezes between this complex of refineries and chemical
plants. The mega-infrastructure dwarfed us, as did the three story
mound of petroleum coke dust at the bend in the road. The sulfur odor
tingled in my nose.
We turned right at River Road, and drove upriver to the Diamond
community, where we met Anne Rolfes, LABB Founding Director. Once a
tight-knit, historic African-American community, most Diamond
residents left in 2003 after negotiating a buy-out from Shell. A
handful of houses remain, surrounded by empty lots, and the now-empty
playground where we stood. Anne briefly told that story — how the
community suffered explosions, death and deteriorating health for
years as the refinery and chemical plants expanded around them. And
then, in the 1970s, after the horrible death of Leroy Jones, a young
man who perished in flames after running over a hidden leaking
underground pipeline with a lawnmower, the community mobilized. Older
ladies painted signs that said “Shell Smells” and and stood on the
levee to face down one of the most powerful companies in the world.
The fight lasted decades until Shell relented and paid a fair price
for residents to move elsewhere.
Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame, Queen Reesie and Andrew
Wiseman (on drums) shared songs and spoken word with us, as Queen
Reesie showed us her handmade beaded suit that told the story of her
son, born premature (possibly because of environmental toxins) and the
numerous women in her family with breast cancer).
We next headed back down the road to the River Region Performing Arts
and Cultural Center for and Art-to-Action workshop. At the
intersection of Prospect Ave and River Road, it is the old Good Hope
School, now surrounded on three sides by refinery — massive pipes run
thirty feet beyond the bricks of the building. The director, Henry
Sorbet, told us about their work in community theater.
And then we got to work. EvanMarie Allison got us all moving to the
Crude Step Two Step.
Then Joe Furnari facilitated an intensive exercise where the participants created performances pieces within 20 minutes based on what they had just seen, heard and smelled. The results were phenomenal — with a few words, dance, movement and
visual, the groups captured the essence of what had taken all morning
for us to say and show.
“Mr. Good Hope.”
Two actors assumed the names of the two communities we had visited,
and began to waltz. Five other people build a refinery with their
bodies and plenty of funny noises, eventually cutting them off from
We will be presenting another Art-to-Action workshop at the Arts &
Democracy Cultural Organizing workshop on February in New Orleans.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.