The 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is widely known as one of the worst environmental catastrophes in modern history, with oil pouring into the sensitive ocean environment for 87 days, wiping out life and altering the ecosystem for decades to come.
But the disaster wasn’t a “spill” to the father of a worker killed in the conflagration that preceded the flow of oil into the sea, as portrayed in the critically acclaimed play Spill by TimeLine Theatre in Chicago, running through December 19.
“It was an explosion,” he cried, one in which 11 workers were killed immediately and scores more suffered physical injuries and psychological trauma that will haunt them for life. “The environment will survive. We can’t get our guys back,” the father said
The play is centered on the workers of the Deepwater Horizon, who worked some of the most dangerous and grueling jobs imaginable, and whose treatment and fate was greatly overshadowed in the public debate and media coverage by the ecological and economic impacts of the four million barrels of oil that hemorrhaged into the Gulf.
Relying on court testimony, letters, journals and hundreds of hours of interviews with family members, surviving workers and others, the script by Leigh Fondakowski functions as impressive journalism, recreating the final moments of the workers who died and capturing their personalities and motivations.
With stellar acting and creative use of a spare set and striking lighting effects, the play transports the viewer onto the Deepwater Horizon and into the salty air permeated by anxiety and then terror as the disaster unfolds.
It lays bare the fears and even premonitions workers had going into the job; how those with decades of experience in the industry had grave concerns about safety procedures on the rig. The play notes how “tool pusher” Jason Anderson, 35, wrote a will in a spiral notebook in the weeks leading up to his departure, and how his wife Shelley felt they both knew their goodbye kiss would be their last.
The play captures the pride the workers and their families took in the oil industry, and how it provided “good jobs” that were hard to come by elsewhere. The oil industry is one of the only industries left where you can work your way up from rough neck to manager with only two years of college, the father of one worker noted.
“These guys who work on these rigs are the fighter pilots of our profession. They’re rock stars.”
The play also chronicles the situation of the cleanup workers, locals who were hired in the wake of the spill to carry out a desperate, misguided and haphazard effort to contain the oil with absorbent boom.
Heading out in a motley flotilla of local boats, they spent long hours lugging oil-soaked boom into boats, often becoming soaked in oil themselves. Then toxic dispersant was sprayed from the air across the ocean, even as the cleanup workers were out on the water with little protective equipment. Later it was proven that the chemicals cause serious health problems for humans and wildlife, dooming cleanup workers to cancer and other life-threatening and chronic ailments.
In a stirring monologue based in part on court testimony, Spill gives voice to cleanup worker Jorey Danos, who saw the quick money as a chance to turn his troubled life around, even as his wife warned him against it. He describes his hands going numb after being soaked in oil, the aching of his muscles from hauling the boom into the boat, and the dispersant raining down on him, making the sea’s surface look like a million pieces of shattered mirror.
“No respirators, no training, no instructions or anything,” recounted Danos, played by Kelli Simpkins. “You’re scooping up oil so hot and so smelly for $300 a day.”
He said “my pride got the best of me” in pushing him to take the job. “This woman right there told me not to go. Now I’m sitting here handicapped with no income. And how can I prove BP put the toxins in me?”
The treatment of cleanup workers and the slapdash cleanup strategy, coupled with draconian efforts to keep journalists and observers away, showed the cavalier and careless approach of the corporate players involved — and government regulators — toward the men and women on the ground and in the water.
The play’s program includes photo and text portraits of the men who were killed in the explosion. Ranging in age from 22 to 49, they were family men, looking forward to celebrate upcoming milestones with their loved ones – one had his anniversary and his son’s birth dates written inside his helmet.
Chief driller Dewey A. Revette had recently walked his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. “Mud engineer” Gordon Jones’ son was born three weeks after his death.
Shelley Anderson later discovered that Jason had been planning a 10th anniversary trip to the same hotel room they had visited on their wedding night.
The play opens with Shelley and Jason at a drunken celebration of oil workers, gambling in a bar or casino before heading out to the doomed rig. The actors chillingly capture the mood of forced, boozy ebullience barely masking underlying fears and misgivings. Jason throws the dice as Shelley looks on, an apt metaphor for the gamble that the men were taking in exchange for well-paying jobs, and that several of the world’s largest companies were taking with the men’s lives.
“The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil,” notes Jones’ father, toward the end of the play. “Don’t gamble with people’s lives. … Don’t gamble when you can’t afford to cover your debt.”
Spill runs through December 19 at Stage 773, by TimeLine Theatre Company, whose mission is to present stories “inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.