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How a Choral Ensemble Will Tell the Story of West Dallas

A collaboration between the Verdigris Ensemble, a documentarian, a visual artist, a journalist, and a community will create art this weekend at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
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Longtime West Dallas activist Luis Sepulveda was among the community members interviewed for Verdigris Ensemble's newest production, Mis-Lead. Courtesy Verdigris Ensemble

West Dallas has long been the city’s epicenter for the neighborhood-led fight for environmental justice. Its residents have pushed back against lead smelters and concrete batch plants for decades, challenging the city’s decisions to allow industrial operators near homes and schools and churches. The fight continues even today, 40 years after the RSR lead smelter shuttered, as its residents organize against a long-standing shingle factory.

This weekend, the choral group Verdigris Ensemble will tell its story through a collaborative mixed media performance called Mis-Lead at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. It is a novel approach to a complicated topic. The 60-minute piece weaves music composed by Kirsten Soriano with recorded interviews from West Dallas community members. It includes poetry, visual projections, Dallas City Council transcripts, and a documentary by the director Michael Flanagan. All the components tell the story of a community that is still suffering the effects of environmental injustice.

During the production, 16 singers will sing lyrics taken from the poetry of Maya Angelou and Octavio Paz. They will use buckets, oil barrels, and other tools as percussion. Interspersed in the production is film and still photos from West Dallas, newspaper clips, on-camera interviews with community members, and transcripts from public meetings.

Sam Brukhman, the choral ensemble’s founding artistic director, says a conversation with Dallas Free Press executive director Keri Mitchell several years ago sparked a desire to tell the stories of Dallas, especially those that have seemingly been lost to time. He’s done that with Mis-Lead

Brukhman says he and Mitchell—who is one of his “favorite people”—met in 2019. He reached out after a reading a story she wrote for the East Dallas Advocate about inequities in admission practices at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Verdigris had just started an initiative at Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy in Oak Cliff to provide free vocal coaching to students interested in auditioning to attend Booker T. Their conversation freewheeled into a discussion about Dallas history.

“She’s just a nerd and I love that about her, because she loves to look at archives, and it’s awesome,” he says. “During the pandemic I started asking her about all these Dallas stories that we haven’t talked about.”

The two realized that Verdigris’ immersive, out-of-the-box approach to choral music could lend itself to telling these stories.

“We have been talking, wondering if there was any way we could work together on a project that takes the voices of people in Dallas and turn it into a concert and immersive experience that can tell a story,” Mitchell says.

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West Dallas' Janie Cisneros was among the community members interviewed for Verdigris Ensemble's newest production, Mis-Lead. Courtesy Verdigris Ensemble

Seventy years ago, Dallas annexed West Dallas, but even before that, the community was besieged by environmental threats and inequities. By 1968, the city had recognized that lead smelters were poisoning the air and the soil, but did little to stop it. When elevated lead levels were found in children in the early 1980s, the community began to fight back. Lawsuits in the 80s and 90s awarded more than $35 million to the children harmed by those plants, and the RSR smelter closed in 1984. 

That was the community’s last lead smelter. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency declared its former home a Superfund Site, then removed several layers of contaminated earth and replaced it with clean soil. West Dallas residents like Luis Sepulveda fought to force the removal of those plants (and eventually won), but the impact from those plants lingers.

For his film, Flanagan interviewed community leaders like Sepulveda, Dr. Folashade Afolavi, Gloria Ardilla, Janie Cisneros, Elisa Lopez, and Esther Villarreal. Cisneros, who leads the neighborhood group Singleton United/Unidos, says that while the lead smelters are gone, the community still fights polluters on a daily basis. There’s an ever-present threat of new concrete batch plants, she says, and the community is in a protracted battle with shingle manufacturer GAF regarding its emissions. Community members say the plant no longer conforms with the neighborhood. 

Mitchell now leads the nonprofit news site the Dallas Free Press, which focuses on South and West Dallas. Brukhman realized that the story of West Dallas—the heartache, the resilience, the ongoing struggles—was an important one to tell.  The publication’s reporting on the environmental injustices there served as the starting point. 

“We wanted to talk about how we got here, and Sam read the [stories] and said, ‘This is it,’” Mitchell says. Having reported on the community, she was intrigued to see how those stories would become art.

“I think it’s also kind of interesting because we’re journalists telling stories,” she says. “But even in our world we’re looking at ways to offer this in a more multidisciplinary way. Could this be journalism? That’s not for me to answer, it’s for the audience to answer, but it could absolutely be. Why not?”

GAF says it will close the plant in 2029 and move operations to rural Newton, Kansas. That’s not soon enough for Cisneros and her neighbors. She hopes that after seeing Mis-Lead, audiences will feel compelled to think of her community’s continuing struggle for clean air and clean land on a more intimate, human level when they read news stories about it.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with audiences from this artistic lens, and connect with one’s humanity in a way you can’t when you’re talking just straight politics and policy and process and ordinances,” she says. “When you start digging into these topics, sometimes it just dehumanizes things.”

Cisneros hopes that audience members walk away understanding “this is why this community fights so hard.”

“I think people will be able to connect with the humanity of this and see us as humans,” she says. “Because let me tell you, I feel like people do not see us as that. They think we’re being unreasonable.”

Brukhman also hopes that the multidisciplinary approach will prompt audiences to learn more. He and Mitchell have also worked together to make sure that West Dallas residents have transportation and the opportunity to attend. He says that the community has also given its blessing to dedicate the performances in honor of one of their fiercest advocates, Raul Reyes Jr., who died suddenly in February.

“The West Dallas community has gone through some of the most difficult trials and tribulations in this city,” Brukhman says. “I think that through our interviews and the outreach we’ve done through Keri and the Dallas Free Press, these people are incredibly resilient and incredibly hopeful, and they demonstrate some of the most positive characteristics of what Dallas is.”

Cisneros says all of that is true, but that resiliency is often misinterpreted.

“We are resilient, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to take advantage of the resilient nature of our community,” Cisneros says. “And sometimes it is.”

Mis-Lead will be staged April 5 through 7 at Kalita Humphreys Theater. You can buy tickets here.

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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