Eczema, psoriasis, severe skin rashes, auto-immune disorders. Allergies to gluten, peanuts, soy, dairy, eggs. If untreated these allergies and disorders can produce severe conditions, some even life-threatening. Extreme allergic reactions are often attributed to genetic proclivity. But sometimes, it isn’t genetics. Sometimes it’s environment.
However, by the time scientists come to a consensus that such a deleterious effect is environmental, it is often too late. The harm has been done and individuals are left haunting hospitals, specialized research clinics and doctors’ offices for treatments. Or they die before their time. Who is truly responsible? Who should be held accountable for environmental hazards if the effects were not known but accrued later with time?
Miss Lead by Mary Kathryn Nagle, directed by Madeline Sayet and produced by Amerinda Inc at 59E59 Theaters until January 26, quietly investigates these issues and raises others. Whispering throughout this powerful production is the theme that “what goes around may indeed end up at one’s back door.” This is especially true in the case of irresponsible head-in-the-sand” attitudes. And if such postures represent gross negligence or theft, the play suggests, no one is exempt from harm. “What goes around comes around” because we all are living on the same planet and will reap whatever we sow.
The playwright forges her play from real events that took place in the Tri-State Mining Area covering Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. This district is home to several Native American tribes represented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Though the characters, specific events and the name of the company are fictional, the circumstances, effects and results are real. Set in Joplin, Missouri, the play reveals the unfortunate impact of the mining company on the families of the area, rich and poor, Native American and white. It is a cautionary tale which warns that such incidents should never happen again but most likely will.
The playwright uses flashback and flash-forward to reveal how the mining company’s actions impact two families from different socioeconomic strata and different generations (past/present). Flashing back to the lower-class mining family we understand the day-to-day concerns of those who worked in the mines: safety, enough work to put food on the table, survival. The play flashes forward to the present to show the concerns of the well-to-do family (the company owner’s) who lives well from the company profits. We see how both families are impacted by the company’s stepped up war-effort production during WWII. In addition we see how the Native Americans influence both families and the entire area.
The working-class mining family includes two brothers, Fred (Stuart Luth) and Chuck (Brett Hecksher), and Fred’s pregnant wife Ruth (Claire Louise Burke). Fred and Chuck are miners who have been out of work for months since the mines closed down. Clearly, they face the issues of unemployment and destitution if the depression continues. Their fears, troubles and heartbreak are juxtaposed against the well-to-do family portrayed in the present day, headed by the father who is the owner of Tri-State-Mining, George (Tyree Giroux). His wife Anne (Dawn Jamieson) is half Native American but doesn’t connect with her roots, and their children Doug (Dylan Carusona), Robyn (Michelle Honaker), and Katie (Tanis Parenteau) do not recognize or understand their Native American heritage.
Katie is a writer who has returned from college because of severe undiagnosed illnesses, one of which is a blistering, bleeding, mega-itchy rash on the tops of her hands. She writes in her journal and reads aloud the narration of what she hopes to create, a story which is vital and interesting. Searching for material to write about she discovers the town’s residents, a former miner and a Native American woman. As the play progresses and Katie’s family tries to have her illness diagnosed, we discover that those people from the previous generation are strangely connected to the current one. For example, when Katie is in the hospital being diagnosed she meets a dying old man. It is Chuck, Fred’s brother whom we encountered in the past. Through a whimsical episode we discover what happened to Fred and Ruth and we learn that a strong Native American woman provided care and sustenance to Chuck when he needed it most as a young man.
Katie writes down old Chuck’s mining story and discovers that the Native American woman who helped Chuck was Rebecca’s mother. Rebecca, a Native American (Elizabeth Rolston), is their nurse who is watching over Katie and old Chuck and caring for them in the hospital. The events in time and place may have changed, but the roles approximate what they were in the past. Once again, Native Americans are in the position of caring for others and bestowing love and sustenance. Once again in the present, the mining company is providing jobs and donating thousands of dollars to the hospital, putting money back into the town to keep it vital, while on the other hand destroying the town’s people through environmental damage.
However, the wheel of fate or destiny is coming round and landing at George’s door to hold him and his company accountable. The Native Americans are litigating. The Bureau of Indian Affairs leased their land to the Tri-State Mining Company without the Native Americans’ permission. They leased the land for the mineral rights, pulled out the lead, and left the area with toxic pollutants, tailings, holes and chat, all of which are dangerous. The lawsuit charges that the government, using the emergency of WWII, in collusion with the Bureau of Indian Affairs took what was valuable, didn’t properly remunerate the Indians and left them with an unregenerate wasteland.
In other words, without the Native American tribes’ permission the company and BIA turned the entire area into a toxic dump. The area is declared a Superfund site of excessive lead toxicity. George refuses to believe the area has been completely contaminated by his family’s company. In a symbolic move he ejects an EPA investigator from his land, denying the necessity of taking soil samples.
Meanwhile, Katie’s diagnosis is given to the family: She has extreme allergies to various foods, but the bleeding, blistering and itchy rash on her hands is identified as a symptom of something else. She writes in her journal lamenting that her hands are in terrible shape, an irony for a writer. When she returns to the hospital for a follow-up and tries to locate old Chuck to gather more information about his past as a miner, old Chuck is gone and she finds someone else in his room – Fred’s son David (Stuart Luth), who turns out to be the man from the EPA ejected by her father for digging in their yard. Old Chuck has died. As they part, David remarks that the two of them have the same rash and that it is a symptom of extreme lead poisoning. As an afterthought he rattles off the other symptoms, which include all Katie’s allergies. As the play moves toward finality, the full impact of Katie’s medical problems are brought to bear on the family and especially on her father.
The playwright’s work is stunning in its quietly delivered message. There is no preachiness, no finger pointing. All views are revealed: the corporate view, the miners’ view, the Native American view. The result is that everyone is a casualty of war on the environment. The irony is that while we may have not have “fought WWII on this soil,” in extracting the ore necessary for armaments we have warred against the soil, poisoning it so that it is not even fit as refuse – it must be destroyed as hazardous waste.
The play abounds in ironies. The company elects to counteract its image problem by “going to war on cancer,” donating money for cancer treatments. Meanwhile, lead poisoning is potentially one of the causes of the high cancer rates in the area. The company’s deleterious actions have created the image problem and have most likely caused the cancer they will now “war” on. George tells his daughter he will spare no expense for her treatment. Meanwhile, the profits his family has gained since the company was created are now being used to treat family members made sick by their own company’s actions. It is clear that the wealth they accrued over the years is useless in eliminating Katie’s sickness and allergies which are depriving her of an enjoyable life. Another irony is that the Native Americans are litigating against the company, one of whose owners is also Native American.
The play reveals the confusion and clash between a culture of rapacity and one which brings help and sustenance. Though there is no finger pointing, there is a reckoning and reminder that under such egregious circumstances as wanton disregard of the environment and of the people who depend upon it to live, disaster will be brought to everyone’s doorstep, regardless of wealth and socioeconomic class. The poor may suffer for a season, but eventually, the suffering will fall upon those who exploit the poor and the environment. And by the time the exploiters find out what their actions have caused, it will be too late for them to escape a fate they have created with their own minds, hearts and intentions.