‘Prevailing Winds’ tells a complex and compelling story of air activism in Louisville

"Prevailing Winds" by the Looking for Lilith theater company tells citizen stories about cleaning up the air in Louisville.

“Prevailing Winds” by the Looking for Lilith theater company tells citizen stories about cleaning up the air in Louisville.

You don’t find air quality at the theater very often. Discussing this complex topic as a history lesson is even more challenging. The playwrights and actors of Looking for Lilith mastered both of these tasks in the new play, “Prevailing Winds.”

The play is not a lecture. The story is very nuanced and does an excellent job illustrating the complexity of the topic. It’s easy to condemn the chemical plants, but not so easy to go without all the products that come from those plants. One of the best scenes in the play shows a woman moving through her day. At each hour, she uses a different product built with chemicals and components from Rubbertown factories. Do you drive a car or use a cell phone? Then you are supporting these factories.

The play also gives an honest portrayal of the emotions that are part of all activism. Protesters are often dismissed for being angry, but defending your home and the lives of your family brings out strong feelings in everyone. Deep emotion is often the motivation for speaking out and demanding change. The play touches on the issue of trust as well. Many stories in the play are told as conversations between the characters. One woman says, “But we’re all good people. Can’t we all believe that?” Her companion in the conversation explains gently that trust has to be earned, it is not simply given “just because.”

The play is built from interviews with citizens, city officials, activists, engineers and employees. It tells the story of air quality in Louisville during the last 100 years, focusing on the work that led up to the STAR program. Residents of Rubbertown and other West End neighborhoods knew that there was something bad in the air. City officials knew it too, but there was no official monitoring program to track the level of toxic chemicals in the air.

The Air Pollution Control District and Mayor Jerry Abramson proposed the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program in September 2004 to address this problem. The APCD held more than 60 public meetings with approximately 1,300 people. The final proposal included changes recommended by citizens, company representatives, health advocates and neighborhood groups. The play includes several of these meetings, including one when a man had a heart attack during his testimony.

The STAR Program was approved by the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control Board June 21, 2005. Carolyn Embry, a member of the board at the time, was one of the yes votes at that meeting. She attended the Monday night performance and spoke during a Talk Back session after the performance. Colleen Crum of the Louisville Sustainability Council, and I were on the panel as well.

The play also explored another neighborhood issue – the coal ash mountain at the Cane Run Power plant. A resident who had been speaking out about the health dangers of “fugitive dust” celebrated when the Cane Run Power plant was converted to natural gas. That meant that there wouldn’t be a second coal ash mountain across the street from her house.

The play creates a true and hopeful picture of how change happens in a community. It isn’t easy and it doesn’t work to demonize one size of the conversation. Everyone who has a stake in Louisville’s health and success has to work on the solution.
You have four more opportunities to see the performance. It’s at the MeX Theater at the Kentucky Center Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It is worth your time and entertainment budget to buy a ticket and enjoy this wonderful story.

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