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The Breathing Thing – An Interview With The Directors and Cast of “Parched”

Free Street’s offices and theater space are on the third floor of the Pulaski Park Center. It’s a labyrinth of a building, with staircases branching off, echoes from a linoleum gymnasium. Enough places to get lost. The office in which I meet director Katrina Dion and assistant director Xandra Starks has high ceilings and figures painted on the walls. Two couches and a coffee table. It’s comfy, unassuming.

J: What was the impetus for this project? How did the content for this project get decided upon?

Katrina: So every year, we do a ten month process with our youth ensemble. They range between thirteen and nineteen – this year it’s more between fourteen to eighteen. Every year we go to them with a question or an issue facing Chicago youth and they spend the next ten months in critical inquiry around that; doing interviews, doing research and then training, learning theater creation skills and then building that play.

A couple years ago, we were trying to really think about the 2019-2020 seasons really deeply because Free Street actually turns 50 years old this summer, in June, and so we were thinking a lot about what were the sort of messages or issues we wanted to frame that very important birthday. We were thinking a lot about healing and about how Free Street was created by, sort of, the city. A bunch of people came together in the wake of the 1968 Riots and said, “What does this city need to heal right now?” And they said, “A theater company.” And so, Free Street Theater was born and literally did free-street-theater – going out and providing free theater.

And so, thinking about healing, originally we thought that this 2018-2019 season was gonna be looking at healing and a lot of the news about lead in CPS schools was coming out. We were probably two years out from Flint at that point and I was just thinking about water because it’s so healing but it’s also such a critical issue here in Chicago and that would be an important play to do.

So really, it was like a year-and-a-half ago that I was like, “We’ll do this play in the spring of 2019,” and I think since then it’s only become more and more important in the way it’s become so clear how much information has been hidden and now is coming to light. It’s not that this a new issue, it’s that, finally, all the cover ups that have been going on can’t be covered up any more.

J: Absolutely. Do the youth deal with water pollution at home or in school?

K: A lot of them in their schools do. I’d say probably like 80% of them have a school that has a lead fountain and a lot of them did not know that until doing this show. When we asked them to look up their schools, they were like, “Oh my gosh! There’s seven in my school? That’s… I had no idea. Why did I have to find this out right now?” So a lot of them in their schools and then, y’know, I don’t know if they’ve all checked the water in their homes. I know you can request a lead testing kit but it takes a long time to get it from a city. But we do have a mom of one of the students that’s like, “They did some work around our house and now the water tastes different.”  A lot of families have commented on how the work on the pipes around the city has changed how their water has tasted as it comes through.

J: So with the kids — I say kids —

K: We call them youth, teens.

J: Cool, thank you. With the youth not necessarily knowing that their water was contaminated by lead, has that — walking in, I can’t imagine every single one of them was completely motivated about it — has there been a change in motivation and passion throughout the project?

K: Yeah, 100%. We’ve seen them be like, “What are we doing outside of this play?” It is a question that’s come up a lot of times, which we are trying to figure out – what else we are doing. We’re talking about hosting a few dialogues around the city. What are little things we can do to support already-existing movements? What are things we can do to get the information out there, even if we print a bunch of stickers and put them on trains and wherever. So they certainly have become extremely motivated to do this and when we hear them talk about — and we’ll get some of them in here in a little bit — but when they talk about it, I’m almost blown away sometimes, y’know? And they’ll even say, “When you told us we were doing a play about water, I didn’t think that that was gonna be, I was like ‘why?’ And now I’m like, we gotta change this, now.”

J: What was the process for developing this with them? What was the starting point and were there points when they started to take a little more leadership in terms of what the content and outcome was?

K: What did we do when we started? We’ve been doing this for so long.

Xandra: Research. It was just a lot of research and understanding  what the water system in Chicago is. We had UIC Freshwater Labs come in, I think in the first few weeks. That was great.

K: And teach us about the social water cycle, all the things that go into our water system here in Chicago, because Chicago has a combined sewer system. Which means that all your water, from your toilet to your sink to whatever, anything you put down any drain, sewer, whatever, all goes to the same system. So when you pour out medicine, that goes to your drinking water, even when you pour it down the toilet.  I think people think ‘oh, this water is different from this water,’ but it’s all the same.

J: I know that Chicago has a long, long, weird history with Lake Michigan and the water’s flow. I’m wondering, how far back did y’all go for your research?

K: To the beginning?

X: When the river was reversed?

K: Yeah, there’s a book called “The Poisoned City” by Anna Clark that’s mostly about uncovering Flint, but there’s a really beautiful section where it just talks about how water systems were created in the US and about Chicago. Specifically, that the Chicago water system was privatized in the beginning; only went to the North Side of the city. A lot of people died because the water was really dirty, the Clean Water Protection Act was not around back then. When that was enforced, the system expanded and changed and that’s why we have the system that we have today, but originally it was privatized. We also interviewed someone from the Indigenous Youth Council to talk about water in and of itself is stolen and we’ve taken that from indigenous folks.

So we went back. Far. As far back as we could. Just because even if you’re not gonna talk about that, you have to have an understanding of how everything lead up to this point. Flint didn’t happen because of one decision. It came because of years and years of things that happened and what we really want people to see in this play is right now it doesn’t seem as critical as it does in Flint, but we are in a position where if we keep ignoring these facts, then it is very possible that decisions could be made that tip us over that edge

Image: Assistant director Xandra Starks and director Katrina Dion stand against a silver cloth backdrop, facing the camera. Dion has one hand on their hip with their other arm wrapped around Starks' shoulder. Starks' head rests on Dion's shoulder. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce .
Image: Assistant director Xandra Starks and director Katrina Dion stand against a silver cloth backdrop, facing the camera. Dion has one hand on their hip with their other arm wrapped around Starks’ shoulder. Starks’ head rests on Dion’s shoulder. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.

J: How are you finding that — because I came to see your midpoint showing, which was fantastic — I know I’m biased, terrible journalist — I’m wondering how you took the feedback from that and how you developed this show further? How the audience related to it then and how you’re hoping or expecting them to relate to it now?

K: Do you wanna say something Xandra?

X: Yeah, I think it was just fleshing out more of what we already had, figuring out where the holes were and figuring out what stories we hadn’t covered yet. Like, we hadn’t brought an Indigenous person in and it was really important to us that we did. We brought in a person named Yoli so that was awesome.

K: And I think the midpoint show wasn’t as Chicago focused and so making sure that our play had that— at that point, we’d only been in process for three months. We were looking at the world and the history and hadn’t really gotten to the current conversation of here yet and I think you could tell a lot of people craved that. Then a lot of people wrote stuff down on notecards when they left and we actually ended up using some direct text from those notecards so what people left behind really helped us. And when we came back we did a lot of mapping, a lot of giant post-it notes, like, “Here’s a topic from this, what do we have questions about, what do we not know? OK, we have this one over here, where’s the overlap? Where are things?” So there was a lot of: put everything we know up on the wall and then figure out what’s a must, figure out what we can’t not talk about, and narrow it down because this could be a 12-hour play if we really wanted it to be.

J: I love the – I’m gonna call them murder maps for a lack of a better term. It is so interesting because I think that the second you start talking about anything that has anything to do with the environment, everything immediately becomes so deeply intertwined with everything else.

K: Yeah.

J: I’m wondering was there a point where you had to stop and say ‘we cannot talk about this thing because it’s simply not in the purveyance of what we’re doing?’

K: Yeah. For sure. There were definitely times when that happened. It’s hard, y’know, and still they’ll come up. We have one student, we love him, he has so many new ideas. He’ll be like, “What if we had a scene about this, what if we had a scene about this, what if we had a scene about this,” and I was like, “We can’t. We can’t. We already have so much in here and we have to frame this argument this way, but I’m glad that you’re still asking, I’m glad that you’re still wanting to put more information out there into it.”

But ultimately, you do [have to stop adding material]. We do have a couple scenes where there’s wiggle room so if something really big happens. Like, let’s say this week, somebody decides they want to start paying for lead pipes to be fixed or something really bad happened, we have two scenes in the show that have room to add in notes about that so this play can be alive. Because we don’t want to stop the conversation. This is an issue that’s live, it’s gonna keep happening and we need to respond to that. You can’t keep adding in full new scenes sometimes. We cover a lot in a little play. We cover international access, we cover Flint, we cover Chicago, we cover memory with water, so it’s like, errugh, I don’t know if we can do any more.

J: The unfortunate thing about theater is that it does have such a limited lifespan because it can only go on for so long — unless you’re like a Broadway theater and then it probably shouldn’t go on for so long — but do you feel like there’s a foundation for the youth to continue talking about this afterwards? Do they have routes of speaking about this in other formats now?

K: So, we got a grant from the Crossroads Foundation to continue work so they do more activism or support movements once this play is over. We’ve spoken to people about them wanting to see parts of [the play] in other festivals. There’s someone trying to get us to Ontario. I think, for me, so often we do plays and it’s like, “OK, that was that play in that moment,” but this one feels like it’s gonna be a play that we keep bringing back. Maybe not here, but it will need to be toured and changed and kept going. And I think [the youth] have the tools for that. We’re also giving the audience tools. They’re gonna get a little handout in the program that gives them emails and phone numbers of people they can join and they have that same information. They literally say in the play that it can feel overwhelming, all this information we’ve given you, but here’s what you can do next. Because you actually can’t leave here and think that seeing the play was the work because it’s not. Going to theater is not activism. So, sorry everybody that was really hoping that it was.

But [the youth] are also acknowledging that the play is not activism either, it’s a tool to assist these other movements. So they’re calling the audience to do more and themselves to do more outside of this.

Pause.

J: Sorry, I had a little brain fart.

K: It’s OK.

J: It’s somewhere up in the ceiling.

Have you had the same cohort of youth the whole time or has there been a shift over the whole thing?

K: Tiny shift. Mostly the same. We had one new person join in February. So she didn’t do the version you saw in December, but otherwise the same and that’s usually how it goes. It’s mostly like 90% the same group, September till May.

Image: Cast member Jada smiles directly at the viewer, wearing thick framed glasses and a dark purple velvet hoodie. They stand with their arms against their side in front of a silver cloth backdrop. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce .
Image: Cast member Jada smiles directly at the viewer, wearing thick framed glasses and a dark purple velvet hoodie. They stand with their arms against their side in front of a silver cloth backdrop. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.

J: How many of the youths — is this their first time doing theater or is it mostly experienced…?

K: Free Street is their first time doing theater, but they’ve been with us for a while. Nayru, one of our seniors, has been with us since right after he graduated eighth grade. A lot of them aren’t theater people, they’re more concerned about these issues; debaters or activists in other kinds of ways.

J: Did you ever find difficulty adapting them for a theater space?

K: No.

J: I guess that’s Free Street’s business though, to say that theater is not an elite thing.

K: Right, and I think our job is to remove elitism, right? That theater should be a tool for everyone to be able to use and that it’s a powerful tool. If somebody was a professional actor and came over here and wanted to do it, we’d be like, “Cool but you’re gonna do the same thing as everybody else.” It’s collective-based versus individual-based and it’s the belief that a person who didn’t get their MFA in acting can be as talented as a person who did, in the same process. Really trying to remove that elitism altogether from what we’re doing. But it’s not [elitist] and I think that’s because of the process and the space that we make. It’s such a long process to allow people to be themselves and to use that as a tool in telling stories. There’s a lot of training, but I think it’s so beautiful and I think we’re so excited to see new people like Aaliyah join us. When I interviewed her, I was like, “Why do you want to do this?” She was like, “Because I’ve never done it before. And I’m a little scared,” and I’m like, “OK, that’s awesome, that’s amazing.” I want that person who says I’m scared but I think I want to do this and I don’t know why. OK, come in. And let’s see what happens.

I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody where it’s been hard. But there’s also a lot of ensemble work and a lot of ensemble building. When we’re doing that research, we’re doing a lot of personal collaboration stuff too, just so they feel that this is a space that they can be themselves in.

J: Would either one of you mind sharing a tool you use to get the cast started off on a scene or a sketch? Like templates or frameworks for that?

K: They’re always different.

X: Working quickly is definitely one of them. Free Street is a place where you’re up on your feet immediately. It’s not somewhere we’ll sit down and talk for hours about what do we think we want to do. It’s like, “No, let’s actually go try and do it.” A lot of risk-taking, a lot of doing impossible tasks.

K: We have a sector of Free Street that’s called Free Street Talks, which utilizes what we call active dialogues where organizations can hire us to facilitate difficult conversations, but we do them using theater games. We custom-design them so we’re always making new games. It’s also approaching everything actively, like Xandra’s saying. Even the way we talk about the issue is active. You’re moving around, you’re playing tag, you’re getting in a line, you’re always looking at visuals so that every part of it is all about shape-making and architecture. Only sometimes do I find us in a circle of like, “OK, let’s pause, let’s have a conversation about this whole thing.”

But I think it’s all very active and it’s quick, it’s like here’s five things: this article, this prop, this objective, you have fifteen minutes and we’re gonna see what you make. They come back in fifteen minutes and we watch it, and we shape it or we throw it away or we take something from it or whatever and that’s a lot of it.

X: I think one of my favorite things that the artistic director Coya Paz has taught, is that theater is a way to practice democracy and a very active way to do that. If you can teach people how to be present in their daily life, talking about these issues, you’re able to practice democracy better and better citizens and participating in that.

J: I love the idea of games as a route to democracy and more egalitarian landscapes. You mentioned doing an impossible task and, for my own edification, can you clarify what an impossible task that you ask people to do is?

X: It’s like trying to fit… I’m trying to think of one of the ones we did over the summer, I can’t remember exactly what it was, but try to imagine you have a ball and you have to throw it across the room and it has to bounce off three different places and it has to land in one spot. Like, there’s no way you can ever do that, but the act of trying to do that activates your body and activates your speech in a way that you probably couldn’t do on your own.

K: Or like flying. Can you fly right now? I don’t see you trying. Are you trying? Are you trying to fly right now?  Let me see you try.

Image: Cast member Lesly stands in front of a silver cloth backdrop wearing a grey T-shirt and thin, black framed glasses. Their face is angled upwards and their smile is wide and large. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce .
Image: Cast member Lesly stands in front of a silver cloth backdrop wearing a grey T-shirt and thin, black framed glasses. Their face is angled upwards and their smile is wide and large. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.

J: So, my in-route to most of this is that I’m a theater maker and also a critic so I’m kind of curious, what do you think the role of theater is in elevating and heightening activist work? How do you think that relationship works?

K: OK, one is the power of what you can do in live space with one another. Such a huge part of activism is coming together, so be it an exchange through a workshop or the live exchange of theater, acknowledging the audience… We are here together, right now. Imagine what we can do. We are witnessing this thing. Imagine what we can do together outside of here and then just being. The reason we bring in Freshwater Labs and interview other people is because we can’t make this work by ourselves. Just reading online is not gonna get us anywhere and then our play is gonna be biased based on the bias of the people reporting the thing, you’re not really getting the story.

You wanna make sure you are interviewing the activists involved and to ask them, “What do you want from this play? When you hear we’re doing a play about water justice, what do you want to see in that? What do you hope people get when they leave?” So we can put that into our work and ask ourselves, “OK how do we fit that in, how do we make sure that’s happening?” So we can be a tool, we can be a tactic in their strategy, to inform more people or to mobilize more people rather than just present information that we found out.

So even with Flint, we were reading so much about it and we kept trying to make scenes about it and it was like, this all sucks. Not that it was bad, but just that this is not it. So we worked really hard to find youth that grew up in Flint to interview. We got connected to someone who runs a community-run lab in Flint where they train youth how to test the water. We got to interview them so now we have that transcript. A lot of times we use transcripts from interviews and activate them into monologues because that is someone’s lived experience and what they want people to know, versus what the news is telling us we’re supposed to know.

J: What was one of the games that you made for this round?

X: (to Katrina) Do you remember that one week, that one day, when we were moving across the floor, becoming a stream? Just doing movement work like that. We were asking [the youth] how do you create a water droplet, how do you make a river that’s more interesting than, ‘Woo, I’m just gonna move my arms and I’m a river.’ How do you come together and create something?

K: We do a lot of variations of things like tag – different kinds of tag. We have one game that’s like Telephone where people have to decide what’s the most important issue and we see what makes it through. It’s literally like, for most lessons I sit down and – it’s a weird job in case you didn’t know – I sit down, make a lesson plan: here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what the day’s gonna look like, here’re some games we’re gonna play but so much of it is live responding to what they’re doing in the room.

I can give you an example of like, I remember a couple years ago we were making this play called “Checkmate,” which was about youth-led movements across the world. We did that play in 2016-2017 because we were originally gonna make a play responding to the first 100 days of the [Trump] presidency, but it was just a little too much at the time to think critically about stuff that just felt like… we were being blasted everyday.

So we were like, “What can we do? How can we think about moving forward?” We can think about what we’re going to do in response instead of responding to the things [the administration is] doing and to do that, we need to look at previous movements, how we got there. There was one day, I wrote down militancy, dialogue, and demonstration and had the ensemble go around with chalk and write different examples of those things and then I made them pick [one of those groups]. “If you could only pick one way of doing activism for the rest of your life, what way is gonna make the most change?” Afterwards, I was like, “Cool, that’s your cast. You are now the militant group, you are now the democracy group, you are now this group.” And they were like, “What!” I didn’t know that’s how that was gonna turn out until the ways they were arguing with each other about which one was better, I was like, “Oh, that’s the play,” and I didn’t know that until that moment.

You can have this plan of what your day’s gonna look like, but ultimately the job that we have is to see when they’re responding to something and pick on that and change whatever else accordingly.

Will Pettway walks into the office.

This is Will, Will’s another assistant director.

If that makes sense, was that a good example?

J: That was a great example. I’ve had some rough interviews in my lifetime and this is not one of them.

Image: Assistant director Will Pettway stands against a silver cloth backdrop with their head turned to their right. They wear a dark colored t-shirt that says "Racial and Youth and Birth and Gender and Economic and Disability and Immigrant and Environmental and Reproductive" in large white letters. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.
Image: Assistant director Will Pettway stands against a silver cloth backdrop with their head turned to their right. They wear a dark colored t-shirt that says “Racial and Youth and Birth and Gender and Economic and Disability and Immigrant and Environmental and Reproductive” in large white letters. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.

K: We love talking about what we do ‘cause it’s so different, but it’s looked at like it’s not professional because, y’know, we’re not hiring equity blah blah blah… but it’s just one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever got to make theater in. The way people think, the way people have dialogues. I get so tired of people saying, “Gah, teens these days just on their phones, don’t know how to talk about anything,” and I’m like, “I been here talking to teens the last five, six years having deep meaningful conversations.” They even make me ask myself questions about everything and you think I’d happen to get the only teens in Chicago that know how to have these conversations? That’s not true. You’re just not talking about what’s important to them. You’re not listening to what they want to talk about. You have to engage them in the conversation, you can’t just talk to them.

J: My partner works with youths and she comes back every other day saying, “Such and such just blew my mind,” so I get what you mean. Are there any moments from this whole process that stood out to you? Like anything that immediately jumps to mind when you think something resonates with you or something that affected you in a more substantial way than ‘this was a rehearsal where we began to learn about water?’

X: It was the day we were talking to Yoli – Yoli’s from the Indigenous Youth Counci l- and Yoli was like, “Why’re y’all making this play? Like what’re y’all doing?” and one of the teens, Star, raised her hand and just went for it. Star just explained all the issues about water and why it is so important to us and all these different things. Katrina and I didn’t have to say anything. She was so there and so in it in this interview and so prepared. It was really beautiful to watch her.

K: I was gonna talk about that too, so that was really cool. Great day.

They did it all the time. We did a workshop version at the Hull House Museum in October of last year. And Aminata did a similar thing where these people were like, “What are you doing this play for?” and she had only been working on this play for three weeks and she was like, “We’re a social justice theater company, we need to be thinking about this all the time.” She literally said – oh my god, it was so funny – she was like, “Whenever you’re walking down the street, and you realize ‘huh. I’m free’ I want you to think about Free Street.” What? Who are you? She’s a beautiful human, Aminata.

There’s one scene in the play that I actually think was from the second week of rehearsal and it’s two boys – I don’t remember what the prompt was – but they’re digging a pool and shooting the water everywhere, having a hose fight y’know, and then, like, make a rainbow and that was… it just struck me because of the tenderness and softness from two young men. I believe men can be soft. We kept it in the play because I think that’s such a rare thing to see, two young men being soft and having this fun like, “Oh my gosh, we’re making a rainbow,” in a way that isn’t sexualized or masculine. It’s just like them making this fun kid scene that just was so beautiful and I thought it captured the essence so well of what it felt like to be a kid in the backyard, just having fun with a hose, and I have never had a scene that I’ve seen week two of rehearsal that I’m like, “That’s in the play.” Most of it’s like information, figuring stuff out! But that was incredible because it was just so beautiful to watch them do and there’s not really props in it. It’s just them imagining fun. It’s so beautiful.

Do you have anything, Will?

W: I mean, that was the thing I wanted to talk about.

K: We’re all on the same page.

W: I mean, just all the fun, it brought back childhood. That was one of the first things I saw while being here and working on it together with those two was beautiful, but mostly just the energy of it was resonant.

J: What are some big challenges working on this or what were some?

K: You just wanna do the people doing the work justice. You don’t wanna – and that was the hardest part because you can’t add anymore – you want to make sure that everyone’s story is told and told in a way that if they see it is gonna feel good to them. You want to do everyone justice, you want to do water justice. You want to honor this thing that sustains us and the challenge is always that you have to be critical of your own work every single day, you have to be able to say, “That can’t be that way,” and not feel anything about it. Nope, that’s not the thing or we don’t have the thing yet or being open to the idea coming out of nowhere and I believe it’s a challenge we always rise to and accomplish, but you have to be present in that. Yeah. That’s my answer.

W: Capital story-telling is really important.

K: Do you want me to get a teen?

J: I would love that.

Katrina leaves the office and walks out into the lobby. There’s chatter humming through the rooms.

K: I’m bringing in some of them.

Five youths walk in and plop onto the couch.

K: Wanna do the Free Street intro?

Lesly: Hi, my name is Lesly. I’m a Pisces sun, Leo rising, Cancer moon.

Niguel: I’m Niguel. I’m an Aries… I always forget the other ones. There’s a Gemini something, right?

K: That might be a Gemini moon.

Niguel: There’s a Taurus-something too.

X: Yeah.

K: Yeah, a Taurus rising

Cora: Oh me, my name is Cora and I’m a Scorpio and I’m a Libra in the other stuff. Like moon and sun I think, I’m not really sure.

K: I think you’re a Libra sun with a Scorpio rising and a Scorpio moon.

X: Katrina knows everyone’s chart.

Jada: I’m Jada. I’m just a Leo.

Aaliyah: I’m Aaliyah, I’m a Capricorn. I don’t know the other stuff.

J: I love that you’re a Capricorn, I’m also a Capricorn.

So where in your life have you found this water pollution and environmental injustice? Is there a place that you’ve found that?

Image: Cast member Niguel stands in front of a silver cloth backdrop wearing a purple shirt. Their right palm is pressed onto their forehead obscuring their right eye. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce .
Image: Cast member Niguel stands in front of a silver cloth backdrop wearing a purple shirt. Their right palm is pressed onto their forehead obscuring their right eye. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.

Aaliyah: Oh, I knew about it but I didn’t really think too much on it. I was just like, “Oh this is just going around,” y’know? Not gonna affect me, but my friend, I went to her house and her water was brown-ish and stuff like that, we didn’t really think too much on it. We just thought that it was like sewer water. We was young so we didn’t think too much on it. And so, I stayed at her house and her mother was home, “Oh yeah, don’t touch the water, Aaliyah, you better go home.” And that’s when she told my mom the situation and my mom had told me that they had to do this filtration thing because they might have lead in the water.

Niguel: I was gonna say, I never really thought about water that deeply until we started this show. I noticed water was kinda nasty when I went to Washington D.C. with my 7th, 8th grade show. Water out there to me was nasty. It was, “This ain’t no Chicago water, I’m used to that good water,” y’know, “this ain’t cutting out for me.”

When I was a freshman, they was doing remodeling in my neighborhood. We’d had to move, me and my family, to a temporary building and that building water was nasty, ain’t like it at all. But when we started to do this [show], that’s when I started to realize water was deeper than what it is. I had never really thought of it. I just knew sometimes it’s nasty, sometimes it’s good, but now I got an idea why it is that way and how people treat it.

J: I love that you said, “Water is deeper than what it is.”

K: There are so many times, I’m saying, “It needs to flow.” “Stop!”

Jada: I agree. I didn’t really think much of it but I kinda knew not everybody has the same type of water. When we started doing this show, I was thinking, “Oh yeah, now that we’re doing all this research I remember when I went to Michigan and their water tasted like eggs and when we were in a bathroom in this building, their water was yellow. Going some places downtown, their water was dirty.” Now that this show’s coming together, I really just overlooked all these problems and now we’re just starting to look deeper into it and I’m just like… “Wow.”

Aaliyah: I feel the same. This play completely taught me so much I never even began to think of. Like, I never began to think, “Oh yeah, the government pick and choose where water goes.” It makes more sense now, the way things are now.

Lesly: Going off of that, I never used to think that water was a being, but now doing this show I think of water as a living, breathing thing that we need to take care of, also everybody has something to do with water. Like, I never asked my parents and then I had to ask my parents what was their first memory of water and they told me – which was really crazy –  it was like this big part of their childhood growing up. My dad always tells me because he used to live in California he used to go to the ocean all the time, but my mom, she had this big flood and her house was all moved which was really crazy. To think that you can ask a stranger on the street, “What’s your deepest memory of water,” they know what to say. They’ll have an answer.

J: You all said there was like a moment when things changed in your perspective — was there a specific moment when this happened or was it a slow progression?

Niguel: I’d say more of a progression thing for me because everyday we rehearse, the more we research, the more we talk about it, the more you learn. There is no specific thing for me because, even if we put this production on to another ten months, it’d be a lot more that we would learn. I feel like my perspective on water and all this would keep changing and changing because the more you know about it, the more you have an intuition about it and all that. The more you know, the deeper your feeling would be.

Aaliyah: I think much more a progression as well and what pops up most is how much I actually use water and how much water is incorporated in my life with everything I do. I have memories of playing with water, drinking water, taking showers, things like that. So many things we do with water, that just made me realize this is a big thing; a part of my life. A progress, as I started to learn more, the more important it became.

J: Was there a fact when it clicked how global, big, this was? Or is there something you really want the audience to walk away with? If you had to give them one bit of information — I know this is a trick question, it’s not fair.

Jada: Like information or like a tip? “Here’s something you should take with you?”

J: Like a fun fact. Because you can’t really have fun facts with this. But if you wanted to see this and you were to be like, “Hey, what’d you think?” and afterwards they said something that made you feel like you did what you needed to do.

Niguel: I guess one of the big things would be if they mentioned the government because the government is basically in control of everything, what happens around us, and they got the most money in the world. I don’t know, they mention the government and what they could do but what they not doing, you know what I mean? Maybe be like, I know I did one thing right if they got one of those big problems in they brain they mention about higher ups. The one percent that controls everything.

Jada: Yeah, and to add onto that, not just the government, but the actual water corporations that are doing this. The government’s not reprimanding them, saying, “Oh you can’t do this,” but letting them do it anyway. I don’t know how well the system works, but they should know what they’re doing is wrong but they’re doing it anyway and the government’s allowing it to happen.

Lesly: One of my lines is, “Without water, there is no coexistence,” we all need water, everything needs water to live, and the fact is that we’re treating it like it means nothing. Like using plastic and putting chemicals in the water and treating it like we don’t need it to survive, when literally that’s all we need to survive.

J: What do you think the function of theater is? What do you think the role of putting this into a play is?

Aaliyah: Trying to get it out there. We can’t solve all the world’s problems. We can’t just put this play out there and expect the government to see it and they gonna start doing what they doing. But I feel like it’s for a purpose though, for people to see it and know more about it. I feel like it signals to people, start doing this more, start doing that more, stop doing this. I feel like it will make a difference in the fact that they know it.

J: Is there anything from this show or process that sticks out to you?

Aaliyah: This is my first year at Free Street and what sticks out to me is that – and I learned a lot this year – but like the environment at Free Street is just so freaking awesome. You can tell people here like and care for each other. Some of them been around for like years, but it’s my  first time and they treat me like they know me. And we all had things to put into the play. It wasn’t just Katrina writing everything. No, this was our output, our stories, our family’s stories. That was nice. That sticks out the most.

Will: I’m thinking about the first time during the rain party, all together, having all the spray bottles and everybody dancing all around, just the joy in the room.

There are outbursts of giggles that crest and dip into thoughtful quiet and rise right again into laughter.

Featured Image: The cast and crew of “Parched” at Free Street Theater poses together. Four people kneel at the front and the rest remain standing. They each make a silly pose; some make the ‘peace’ sign with their hands and others stick their tongues out. Behind them is a chalkboard with “PARCHED” written on it in blue and white chalk. Image courtesy of Sarah Joyce.


J Van Ort is a writer and theater maker. They’re a contributing writer at NewcityStage and have worked with theater companies such as the Neo-Futurists, Facility, (re)discover and TUTA.