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Local theater artist Deb Royals' new play about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

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Playwright and ethnographer Deb Royals was looking for insights from the Deepwater Horizon disaster that weren't getting out over the Internet and cable news. In Grand Isle, La., she found one: Disaster can be beautiful. At least, when it's just beginning.

The small fishing and beach community 50 miles south of New Orleans had seen its share of disasters in recent years. Back-to-back visits from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and a direct hit from Hurricane Gustav in 2008 were pushing the average for a community used to such storms every three years or so.

But on April 20, 2010, fishers and residents saw something unfamiliar from the pier of the state park there: a brilliant light, low over the water, east by south, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.

Just over 100 miles away, a massive fireball was towering over a slowly sinking oil rig in the wake of a catastrophic explosion. Fueled by a pressurized stream of natural gas, it had already killed 11 of the 115 men working there.

Meanwhile, in Grand Isle, people who didn't realize what they were seeing "described it as being really beautiful," Royals notes. "This beautiful light on the horizon."

These accounts provided her with the title of her new work, Light on the Horizon. Justice Theater Project premieres this collection of firsthand stories from the aftermath of the environmental disaster this weekend in Clare Hall at Raleigh's St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Shortly after the explosion, Royals heard Fr. David McBriar, associate pastor at St. Francis, discuss it in a homily. "He said we were partially responsible," Royals recalls. "He said it was the result of our addiction to oil."

It was a time before hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and offshore oil drilling loomed large in North Carolina's immediate future. But since then, Royals has had time to ponder the degrees to which the sights she saw and the tales she collected over five trips to the Gulf Coast might be a harbinger of things to come closer to home.

"Early on, a man at a shrimping company in Dulac [Louisiana] asked me, 'Had you looked at these fragile barrier islands before you came to talk to me?' I said, 'No, I hadn't,' so I went, and then went back. And what I saw reminded me of the fragile barrier islands that exist in North Carolina."

With a $5,000 grant from the Poverella Fund, Royals journeyed across a series of Louisiana gulf communities over the following year. Some of her sources came out of collaboration with Joel Bourne, a journalist living in Wilmington, N.C. who covered the spill for National Geographic in October 2010. Others were serendipitous. A receptionist and former schoolteacher at New Orleans' Mint Museum plugged her into a network of shrimpers and roustabouts—the men who do the heavy work on the oil rigs and fishing boats that dot the Gulf of Mexico.

"There's long been a marriage of the shrimp and petroleum industries," Royals says. "In 1967, their Shrimp Festival was renamed the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. I was shocked at the ways their lives are cobbled together between the two; in the off-season, many shrimpers work on the oil rigs. I was shocked at how vulnerable and fragile that life is."

In her travels she met an administrator frustrated over his inability to convert a training rig to run on alternative energy sources.

"Don't think that if we go to another energy source that it's going to be somebody other than BP or ExxonMobil or Chevron," he warned Royals. "They already own the intellectual property rights to those alternative technologies."

She encountered a port authority head, a seasoned captain given to salty language who finally got fed up with his orders not to rescue the wildlife. One day, when he saw a brown pelican founder in the sludge, he halted his boat. "I sat for an hour," he told Royals, "watching him cook in his own skin. Our state bird with oil dripping all over his big yellow eyes." He radioed in that work would not re-commence until someone came out to rescue it. They did.

As often happened in her earlier piece on the death penalty in North Carolina, Royals met a number of people with what she calls "very clear and very different ways of thinking about their politics." On encountering the most vitriolic opinions, she notes, "I had to say, 'This is heartbreaking. But this is a truth. And it is worthy of this moment; it is important to mark it.' As Dwight Conquergood (an ethnographer with whom Royals studied at Northwestern University) would say loud and clear, 'Don't disconnect.'"

A brassy, blonde good ol' girl who works for a food caterer for the rigs tells Royals in no uncertain terms that she wants "these Katrina people" out of her neighborhood. But then the woman reflects and gets quieter. "Those coal miners were coming up out of that well there in Peru and we had a big huh huh for them. I get sick to my stomach. When I think that I didn't stand out on the beach ... to see if anybody came back. Why weren't we at the beach?"

These and other uncomfortable questions are considered in Light on the Horizon, which runs Fridays through Sundays through June 24.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The fire next time."

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