New Climate Change Play ‘1969’ Brings Attention to California Oil Spill

Playwright Gina Russell Tracy (CT Examiner).


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GUILFORD – Based on her firsthand experience, resident Gina Russell Tracy’s new play, “1969,” focuses on the devastating environmental impact of the 1969 oil spill that dumped as much as 4.2 million gallons of oil into California’s Santa Barbara Channel.

A reading of Tracy’s new play will take place at Christ Episcopal Church at 11 Park St. in Guilford on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

“1969” is the second of Tracy’s “Climate Change Cycle,” a trilogy of plays – “Stardust,” “1969,” and “Permafrost” –  documenting climate change events in the past, present and future.

“Stardust,” which was published by Next Stage Press in 2021, is told from the perspective of a lobster fisherman who sees the devastating effects of pesticides and warmer water temperatures on lobster fishing along the Connecticut shoreline. 

The lobster fisherman’s wife, Tracy said, works at a factory that is contaminating the ocean and rivers, while their child is an environmentalist.

“It’s a journey toward extinction,” she said. “… There are no more lobsters.”

Set primarily on the eve and following days of the Santa Barbara oil spill, which began on Jan. 28, 1969, Tracy’s second play follows the fisherman and his wife as high schoolers.

“It’s the night before, and it’s the high school kids going to the beach, playing guitars, trying to see if they can avoid the draft or not,” Tracy said. “They’re all theater kids because they’re all that I knew at the time, and the next day the oil spill changes their lives.” 

The final piece of the cycle, “Permafrost,” is set in the near future on Nantucket, as the island is swallowed up by the ocean due to higher water elevations from melting ice caps.

“We know it’s going to happen,” Tracy said. “It’s not if, it’s when.”

A bit more fantastical than its predecessors, the two-person play involves a scientist, who is the last person on the island, processing what is happening when she is visited by the spirit of a cat.

“The cat is the spirit of a cave cat found in the permafrost,” Tracy said. “They have a nice interaction about how to survive.”

All three pieces had a reading in 2021 at Theater for the New City in New York as part of Climate Week, and featured Tony nominee Alison Fraser and Jeff McCarthy.

A native of Appleton, Wisconsin, Tracy moved to Santa Barbara, California, in 1963 when she was in second-grade. 

Raised by her grandmother, Tracy said she discovered the joys of being on stage while attending after-school programs at the Catholic school she attended.

“Kids who were in that program might get a hot dog, or some apple juice, or milk,” she said. “I could be there longer, get some supervision and not be as hungry later. They had a poetry class. I didn’t know what that was, so I tried to turn it into a dance class. Then we had music class. It kept unfolding, and there was large support for me.”

By age 22, Tracy had an agent, and in 1978 was featured in the television movie “Stubby Pringle’s Christmas,” starring Struther Martin, Beau Bridges and Julie Harris.

Looking for work, she performed in various shows at theme parks like Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California, and Marineland in Palos Verdes, California.

“A director I worked with was doing a show in Gatlinburg [Tennessee], and I played Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton at a show that was there for six months.”

From Tennessee, she moved to New York City where she was cast in a touring production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and a production of “Hair” at Queens Theatre in the Park.

Feeling the need for something more permanent in her life, Tracy said took a directorship at Bunnell High School in Stratford, and in 1985 opened Workshop Productions, a professional theater in Greenwich.

She and her husband, Christopher, settled in Connecticut and have a son, Michael. 

But Tracy still stayed busy in theater, getting commissioned to write three children’s school plays in Trumbull – “Storybook Land,” a modern “Alice in Wonderland” called “Allison,” and a conservation piece called “The Last Panda.” 

Over time, she wrote more plays, including “Potter’s Wheel,” “Wild Time,” “The Legend of Arthur,’ and the anti-war piece “Triage.” 

The “Climate Change Cycle” is Tracy’s primary focus now as she aims to bring more awareness to climate change. 

“It’s important for a lot of people around the world, as we’ve seen demonstrated in climate marches and children like Greta Thunberg,” she said. 

“My world was shattered,” she said of witnessing the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “The beach was my home. Those animals were my family. It’s probably undiagnosed PTSD and everybody that was there was traumatized. Now we’re standing on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren, relying on them to be problem solvers and the change agents.”