For Fertile Ground this year, Boom Arts programmed a one-time-only performance that, in combination with its pre-show lecture and post-show Q&A, felt more like a symposium on the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis than simply a play. The afternoon brought together a doctoral candidate from PSU working on migration; international development workers who had spent time in the region; and a reading of a play, translated from Italian, based on the experiences of fishermen from the tiny island of Lampedusa. The intention? To draw attention to the individual migrants' experiences attempting the treacherous passage across the Mediterranean Sea in search of amnesty in the European Union. The only voices conspicuously missing were those of migrants and refugees themselves. (Side note: one voice I did hear, that I didn’t expect to be present, was the anti-Muslim audience member in the back who asked during the pre-show lecture why so many Muslims want to move to the EU if they don’t want to act like Europeans—oh heyyyyy, thanks for coming!)
The staged reading of Noise in the Waters was performed by Bobby Bermea, who appeared last year in Portland Playhouse's How To End Poverty in 90 Minutes, another piece of socially conscious theater. Thanks to Bermea’s impressive and empathetic acting skills, the reading was truly moving, making an issue that can seem vast and unapproachable feel personal, immediate, and heartbreaking. The accompanying score, composed and performed by Ryan Francis, provided an emotional backdrop to sparse staging that consisted simply of light, sound, and actor.
Curator and producer Ruth Wikler-Luker is clearly pondering the role of art in social justice, and trying to program in ways that answer that question. When she introduced the performance, Wikler-Luker described the script as tying “anger to empathy and to action.” This could be an apt description for the intention of the entire afternoon, although things always begin to break down when they reach the subject of action. The final question of the post-performance discussion was, “What can we as Americans do?” This question will always, always be asked by an audience member at any panel, lecture, or performance you attend that has a vaguely justice-related topic (just replace “Americans” with “white people,” “men,” or another group of self-professed “allies”), and the answer will almost always fall somewhere on a scale of unsatisfying to useless. On Sunday, the response contained both a veiled suggestion to donate money (perhaps useful) and the particularly frustrating implication that we had already done something by attending this performance (neither useful nor true). Although we may not have accomplished anything concrete by attending Noise in the Waters, adding personal and emotional depth to a global human rights crisis and providing additional context and explanation seems as good a place as any to start.