Prove your humanity

A touring production about the complex issues around fossil fuel extraction is coming to western Pennslyvania. The story, presented by Kentucky-based Clear Creek Creative, delves into the themes of domination and resilience in Appalachia.

“Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man” is described as an outdoor, eco-cultural theater, music and meal experience. It’s coming to Tree Pittsburgh’s campus along the Allegheny River from September  28 through October 1.  

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with artist Greg Manley of local organization Friends of the Riverfront, who helped bring the production to Pittsburgh, and Bob Martin, writer and lead performer of the title character.

Listen to the conversation:

Kara Holsopple: Who is Ezell Parsons, and where did he come from?

Bob Martin: Ezell is somebody whose family has lost their land. It’s a story that’s common to many people. Parents, family members have gotten sick, so in hard times, families had to sell off the land. And Ezell has been removed from that place of his upbringing and has been trying to find a way to get back to that place or that feeling of being connected to land, of home place, of belonging.

Ezell has taken a job as a land man, a land rights speculator. As the fracking boom has come into his area and local companies are forming to try to grab land rights, oil and gas rights in anticipation of a larger commodity, Ezell, as a land man, is using his knowledge of the place and of the people who live there to try to support them in not having to sell off their land.

At the same time, he’s using the money from this job to buy back his family’s land in hopes of reviving it. However, this idea of Ezell buying back his family’s land while trying to get neighbors to sell off their mineral rights is a catch-22. It’s something where the land might be destroyed despite his best intentions.  

Kara Holsopple: Why did you want to bring the production to Pittsburgh, along the banks of the Allegheny River?

Greg Manley: I moved here in 2015 and was struck by people’s roots — how deep those roots go in this region. The story of feeling at home in a place where you have been, and your ancestors have been was something that was new to me, having grown up in California and moved to New York City and considered myself more of a global traveler. Then, I was eager to put down roots in Pittsburgh and have since started a family here. 

I think the question of land is very crucial in Pittsburgh. How do we keep the people whose hearts are here in the land here? How do we welcome the people in who can find a home that’s affordable and very liveable here? It immediately seemed to me like a story that would resonate very strongly with all the different types of people that call Pittsburgh their home.  

Bob Martin: Just to build off of that, in the play, Ezell talks to the audience as cousins. He says, “Hey, cousin.” When I go to Pittsburgh, I feel very much like it’s a part of home here. The story of extraction is an incredibly complex one. It’s not a pro-con binary. It’s something where if we’re going to envision solutions to this for the future of this place, those solutions should be as complex as the ecosystem of this place, which includes the complexity of all the people and the labor and the culture that have lived here past, present and future.  

Kara Holsopple: Yeah, I wondered if the performance had a point of view when it comes to fossil fuel extraction.

Bob Martin: I think to answer your question, yes, there’s a clear point of view. We seek not to vilify any person or particular industry in this play. However, we’ve had people from oil and gas come and see this play and then write back to their colleagues and, you know, in industry forums, saying you’ve got to see this because it’s calling us to the attention of how this work impacts people on a local and interpersonal and community level as well as speaking to larger aspects of climate change.

Really, I think the point of view is less important than the complex question that hopefully everyone can see themselves in: How do I find empathy towards those things that are incredibly challenging that we’re all implicated in? We have created this present, and we’re part of creating the future for those that come after. And how do we do that? 

Greg Manley: Ezell maybe develops a point of view, but the very fact that the audience journeys back to a common table where we have an opportunity to break bread with one another is something that I find unique about this production. It really does offer the opportunity to not just pay lip service to tackling social change, but sitting us down with strangers or people that we’ve been through an experience with and prompting us to get to know each other a little better and get to know our own takeaways from this experience so that we can add to the nuance, complexity and ultimately empathy for the situation that we are in.

Kara Holsopple: The play was written out of the experience of an Appalachian community in Kentucky. How has it been received by audiences in other places?

Bob Martin: Recently, we were in Sonoma, California. You know, there’s been ongoing dialogue with how climate change impacted fire. Land impacted by fire in relation to climate change is changing the landscape, the cultural and human landscape, and the natural landscape and just forcing people to dialogue with how they live and their relationship to land and that space. Also, the space in Sonoma had the stories of the Indigenous population, multiple Indigenous communities who shared the performance site of Sonoma Mountain as a creation site. 

This story, Ezell, is a type of sort of Trojan horse for other stories of the place to rise up through, and those stories often come out. They’re set free during the story and the journey and just the quiet walks in nature. And then you get into the meal space and suddenly [out come] the stories of New Orleans and the stories of eastern Pennsylvania along the Delaware River Basin, where there’s just like tremendous fracking in one county and then where the performance is happening, there’s a very strong watershed protection community. 

So in that community, we had people in the audience who really had a visceral, emotional experience during the play because things that were happening in the play happened to people in the audience. One person approached me afterward and said, “I don’t know how you knew my story, but, you know, I haven’t been able to express how hard it was to try to save our family’s land by signing our rights away. And then what has come of that has been really difficult for us in these ways.” For them to be able to feel it in a container that is held and emotionally charged seemed to be a type of catharsis, which is the ancient role of theater in our society. 

Kara Holsopple: Greg, what do you hope the Pittsburgh audience might take away from this experience? 

Greg Manley: I want to borrow a phrase that we use at Friends of the Riverfront, speaking about the river’s role in our civilization here, which is: Connect to something greater. 

I think this show gives audiences an opportunity to connect to each other, to connect to their landscapes, and also to connect to the history, the people that have come before and the animals that have come before them, and all the intricate web of the ecosystem that we are tied to.

I think this show gives people from different sides of the political spectrum, different classes and different experiences an opportunity to connect to something more profound as we try to battle this epidemic of social isolation and loneliness and withdrawal in our society. We need connection, and we need to connect to something that feels real and everlasting.

Greg Manley is the amphitheater artist who works with Friends of the Riverfront, Allegheny Greenways, Point Park University in Pittsburgh, and Jose Quiroz Farm. He also serves on the North Side Leadership Conference and is Secretary of the Fineview Citizens Council.

Bob Martin is one of the creative partners for Clear Creek Creative, based in Kentucky. He is a writer, producer and performer of  “Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man.”