The River Runs Deep: Activism and the Art of Listening

Photo credit: Melisa Cardona,

Article by Rebecca Mwase & Hannah Pepper-Cunningham

An outdoor performance set at the edge of our disappearing wetlands, C/APP partner project Cry You One is part song, part story, and part procession that celebrates the people and cultures of South Louisiana while turning clear eyes on the crisis of our vanishing coast. Shows are Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons from Oct 26 through Nov 24 (Special Pay-What-You Can Performance Monday, October 27). Find all the details—as well as lots more information about CryYou One, our coast, what’s being lost and what’s being done about it—at

On top of the checkout counter at the gas station where we buy Gatorade after long rehearsals on the levee, there is a petition. It reads, “WE STAND AGAINST RIVER DIVERSIONS.” This is clearly an issue people care about. From concerns about increased flooding to the destruction of oyster beds and fisheries, people have a reason to be worried about river diversions. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that river diversions are an integral part of any sustainable plan to replenish Louisiana’s coastal land.

The issue of river diversions is as nuanced and delicate as the relationship between the folks signing that petition and the land. However, as the situation on Louisiana’s coast grows increasingly dire, this deep local knowledge is often lost. Instead, state agencies serve up a buffet of land-and-people-management options that discount local vision. These top-down plans polarize debate and use the richness of our identity and experiences to divide us.

Southeast Louisiana’s wetlands are disappearing at the rate of about a football field every 30 minutes. Since 1930, we’ve lost 1900 square miles of our home, an extremely biodiverse area home to the mix of peoples who gave us Cajun and Zydeco music, jambalaya, gumbo and second lines. The land these communities have lived on for centuries is sinking, subsiding, flooding and quickly being washed away. And the consequences are not just local: Southeast Louisiana is also the largest shipping network, seafood and oil and gas extraction infrastructure in the country.

Lloyd “Wimpy” Serigny – Oil Companies from Mondo Bizarro on Vimeo.

Louisiana may be experiencing the fastest rate of land loss on earth, but people across the United States are facing dire environmental situations. Whether it is drought in Arizona and Nevada or the poisoning of groundwater due to fracking in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we are in a moment locally, nationally and globally where issues of land, water and survival are paramount in our consciousness. And the urgency of centering local voices and lived experience in our responses to these crises transcends region.

This urgency has been central to our work with Cry You One. We have come to hope that both the outdoor performance and the online storytelling platform can create alternative ways to confront coastal land loss: ones that leverage critical connections, deep listening and storytelling to engage both local community and policymakers from a place of power.

Before working on Cry You One, we never listened to the cicadas long enough to hear how their calls fluctuated with the murmurings of the frogs. Many of us do not come from families whose work depended on the temperamental subtlety of the earth. We did not all grow up with a deep way of listening to, being with, or knowing land. Through the process of creating this performance, we have started, slowly, to experience this. And we have listened more deeply to the people whose work it is to know this land: to Joel Profit, a fisherman and history teacher; to Mr. T-Black, a Creole tomato farmer; to Clarice and Danny Friloux, whose air and water is being poisoned by the open oil pits on their property; to Celie Robbins, a shrimper and traiteur. As nuanced and contradictory as the experiences of the people of coastal Louisiana are, so is the land. The ways we have come to live on it reflect its complexities.

Clarice Friloux from Mondo Bizarro on Vimeo.

Cry You One, opens up an experience of what it truly means to be immersed in the destruction of one of the most fertile and diverse river delta systems in the world. The central wetlands, where the piece is set, have been deeply damaged by saltwater intrusion caused by the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet as well as by oil and gas canal dredging. We seek to give people an opportunity to experience firsthand the richness and complexity of this struggling ecosystem and to engage with the cultures and communities that have called it home since Native Americans first settled on this land.

We hope the piece – during its run in New Orleans and even more so on the national tour – will build local connections among activists, community members, politicians, scientists and academics to discuss large and small-scale remedies to aid our ailing land. We believe that the plan we bring is one that strives to speak from the complexities of all of those who have relationships here and especially from those who are most impacted by the centuries of trauma held by the land and its people.

We want to encourage and connect with folks outside Louisiana to join us as partners in solidarity around issues of environmental degradation, land loss and ecosystem decay. As the Cry You One digital media and community engagement team, we have spent time listening to stories, asking those we interview their thoughts about how to heal and help the land. They have different ideas and opinions about the current Master Plan, but as we all know, it is not the only plan that is possible.

We hope our work with Cry You One leads to a new vision that weaves together a dedication to rebuild the wetlands, adaptable ways to engage with the rich resources of this region and sustainable environments to build community in harmony with the land. We ask that our ROOTS family supports us in finding ways to build spaces to engage policy makers from a place of power, and perhaps to also find ways to collectively practice methods to heal ourselves and the land. We extend our warmest invitation to come to our performance and visit our website; to listen, to witness, to remember, to dream, and to connect—to the land and to each other.


Rebecca Mwase is a theater artist based in New Orleans, LA. Her work lies at the intersections of race, gender, religion, sexuality and class and seeks to illuminate and question the power structures that control our society. As an artist, Rebecca is committed to involved processes that mine personal stories providing singular entry points into complex contemporary issues. To that end, she is committed to arts education working with both ArtSpot and Junebug productions as well as New Orleans Queer Youth Theater. She has led workshops both locally and internationally to educate artists, students and communities in effective ways to harness the creative arts for social change and empowerment. She aims to use her creative work as an organizing and educational tool to incite conversation and questioning of our modes of being and doing in the world. Rebecca is dedicated to creating original work. Her recent work includes “Lockdown” by Junebug Productions, “Looking at A Broad” her solo performance project, and “Kiss, Kiss, Julie” and “Go Ye Therfore…” by ArtSpot Productions.

Hannah Pepper-Cunningham is a performing artist in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a member of Mondo Bizarro and is grateful to all of her teachers and collaborators, and to all of the wonderful people of Alternate ROOTS.


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Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.