Water is Rising, now touring the Northeast, is one of a number of this year’s theater productions bringing climate change to the stage. This one’s different in that indigenous musical troupes don’t act … but rather use song and dance to highlight real challenges of rising sea levels, salt water intrusion, and changing precipitation patterns.

Before the Web, with its ever-increasing collection of streaming videos, before television, even before radio, there was the theater. On its stages events distant in time or space could be brought to life. In the final chapters of Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language, for example, cultural historian Greg Dening describes the dramatic re-enactments of Cook’s voyages, and of the mutiny on the Bounty, staged just weeks after news of the events reached Britain. Through these plays, Londoners could visit the shores of newly “discovered” Pacific islands.

But the theater is now more often a place for commentary than news, and this year a surprising amount of that commentary has been about climate change. In February 2011, two plays opened in London. Nature has described Greenland — by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner, and Jack Thorne — as “a production almost as complex and unwieldy as climate change itself.” Richard Bean’s Heretic, by contrast, was seen as a comic success — but with “factual errors [that] will infuriate some scientists.” In October, Lungs, a Duncan Macmillan play about a couple contemplating reproduction in a world with climate change, premiered in Washington, D.C. And on November 4, a musical revenue, with undertones of climate change, began touring the Northeast.

Bringing climate change music and dance to the theater.

Water Is Rising: Music and Dance amid Climate Change is the joint effort of three different indigenous musical troupes and the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, under the direction of emeritus professor of World Arts and Cultures Judy Mitoma.

The three troupes were chosen to represent the distinct cultural heritages of three Pacific island-states threatened by rising sea levels: Kiribati, Tokelau, and Tuvalu. Together the three states encompass 45 islands (roughly 330 square miles of land) and a combined population of 114,000, with Kiribati (pronounced kirr-i-bas) comprising almost 90 percent of that total. In fact, College Park, Md., the location of the Clarice Smith Arts Center where the troupes performed on November 4, is nearly equal in size to Tokelau, the smallest of the three — and its population is 25 times larger.

Water Is Rising differs from the other productions that premiered this year in one doubly significant respect: its performers are not acting. Water Is Rising is not a play with a plot but a revue in which the three troupes take turns performing numbers that include both music and dance. But the problems addressed by many of these numbers are also not merely imagined. Each of these island communities already faces real consequences of climate change: rising sea levels, which batter their coasts and salinize their soils and drinking water, and changing patterns of precipitation. By presenting their cultural heritage to the outside world, and thereby attempting to persuade their audiences to take action on climate change, the 36 performers hope to preserve their islands.

Connecting Scenes of Daily Life with Music, Words

To assist the troupes in meeting this objective, the production includes a large screen suspended above the stage, against a backlit backdrop of fish netting. Color photographs are projected onto the screen. Captions, or the words for the number being performed, are then added, line by line, above or below the image. In this way, the audience can connect scenes of daily life in these communities with the music, words, and movements of the performers.

The stage is otherwise bare. The only props are the native costumes, and the only instruments are acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and improvised percussion pieces — a slab of wood, a tin food container, and a small (about two feet by three feet and nine inches high) platform on which the performers slam/slap their hands.

That night’s performance began with a projected image of Earth from space, which then closed in on the United States. From there, viewers were carried across the Pacific, to each of the three island groups. Then one heard a chorus — but not from the stage. One troupe took facing positions on opposite sides of the balcony. The other two troupes bordered the audience below. All then filed to the stage, where they sat, cross-legged, in two rows just in front of the backdrop.

During this first part of the program, which featured traditional songs/dances about their island lives and histories, the troupes took turns: performing in the front for 15-20 minutes, then serving as an appreciative back-of-stage audience for the next 35-40 minutes. The highlight of this first hour: an increasingly feverish song about gathering coconuts to ransom fellow islanders held captive by white traders: “Do we have enough? Is it enough? Let us get some more.”

In the second part of the program, after a short intermission, each troupe was allotted its own time on stage. Many numbers in these sets were original compositions; several offered evidence, if any were needed, that the performers were also quite familiar with other musical traditions. As further evidence of this point, the three troupes closed the program by joining hands onstage and inviting the audience to join in singing “Amazing Grace.”

This profession of faith was not just musical. Because missionaries quickly followed in Captain Cook’s wake, the residents of these island-states are all Christians. In fact, each troupe was formed to perform a social as well as an artistic mission: providing the youth with role models, activities, and a sense of their tradition. The climate message of Water Is Rising is thus being preached by three different Christian choirs. This creates some dissonance.

In one stanza of “Siva A Tamafine,” the Tuvalu troupe called for calm in the face of new adversities: “We do not panic with climate change; looking back on God’s Word, his rainbow shines forever.” This refers to God’s promise to Noah, in Genesis, never to unleash a world-wide flood again. One storyline of There Once Was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho, a recently produced documentary on Takuu, another Pacific atoll, followed a group of evangelical Christians as they dissented from community efforts to discuss preparations for relocation; their literalist interpretation of the Bible convinced them that the dangers of climate change were not real. Whether this one line points to the same dynamic on Tuvalu remains to be seen.

But within the U.S., the demographic analyses by Yale Forum Publisher Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues point to an inverse relationship between religious practice and concern about climate change. Those most concerned about climate change are the least religious, and the most actively religious are the least concerned. Thus the audiences that most need to hear the message of Water Is Rising are not to be found in the arts centers of colleges and universities but in suburban mega-churches.

One wonders how these American Christians would respond to the islanders’ message. From studies of public attitudes and beliefs about climate change, one might infer that they would offer the islanders safe haven before they would accept limits on their use of energy. For anyone who views nature in strictly utilitarian terms, that would be the logical conclusion of a cost-benefit analysis. Engaging with these performers’ strong emotional bonds with their island homes might change that calculation. Or not.

But unless the world quickly and decisively reduces CO2 emissions, relocation is the inevitable outcome for these three musical troupes. Perhaps they could continue to tour as a sort of historical revue, as Sitting Bull did with William F. Cody’s Wild West Shows. If you want to experience the living cultures of these Pacific island-states, however, don’t delay.

The final shows of the current tour are at Wesleyan University (11/10), Cornell University (11/12), Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts (11/15), Flynn Center for Performing Arts (Burlington, VT – 11/18), and Harvard’s Sanders Theater (Cambridge, MA – 11/19).

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...