An Interview with Actor, Director, and Solo Performer Rotimi Agbabiaka

By Imara-rose Glymph

Welcome to the first installment of our new series, Black Artists and Storytellers on the Climate Crisis! As a newcomer to the climate storytelling space, I am inspired by artists who highlight intersectionality in their practice. Prominent Bay Area actor Rotimi Agbabiaka is no stranger to crossing genres and pushing socio-political boundaries in neon-drenched, immersive environments that challenge the exclusivity of theatre and the status quo (see his solo show Type/Caste). His acting has taken him to a number of places, including the San Francisco Fringe Festival, historical musical venue Beach Blanket Babylon, and the American Conservatory Theatre, among others. Equipped with breathtaking poise and eloquence, Rotimi is an artistic force to be reckoned with. 

Rotimi was a principal actor in San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2013 environmental musical satire Oil & Water, which tackled the extractive practices of corporatocracy. He was also one of the head writers for the troupe’s 2018 show Seeing Red: A Time-Traveling Musicalwhich transported audiences to 1912, when socialism was on the rise and popular among the working class. When not on stage or writing plays, Rotimi teaches theatre at institutions such as Middlebury College and the San Francisco Shakespeare Company.

In the wake of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the social consciousness, and its interlinked nature with environmental justice, Rotimi and I discussed how the art of storytelling plays an integral part in motivating people to reflect on pertinent global issues, the experience of being a queer artist, and what enviro-activism really entails. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rotimi Agbabiaka in Type/Caste. Photo by Cabure Bonugli.

You were a writer and actor for the troupe’s 2018 show Seeing Red, and you’ve been a collective member of SFMT for ten years. What first drew you to revolutionary, satirical theatre?

Several things. I was born and raised in Nigeria which, in my lifetime, has undergone multiple coups, military dictatorships, and transitions to a civilian government with various levels of corruption causing a really stark gap between the wealthy and the poor. Even as a child, the impact that decisions made in the political arena had on everyday people was clear. Politics was always a subject I was aware of and interested in – such that I studied economics to understand the ways in which financial and socio-political issues affect how people live. In my final year of study, I was hired by the San Francisco Mime Troupe after a general audition to perform in the 2010 show Posibilidadan original musical about the take-back of factories by workers in Argentina. We really engaged with communities around issues of worker ownership and the exploitation carried out by corporate entities. This introduction to the great potential that theatre has to address political issues in a way that is accessible to non-typical theatre goers fostered my growth and my passion for it.

As a core member of the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience and as a prominent Bay Area theatre maker, what role do you see art and storytelling playing in motivating people to think more deeply about social and environmental change?

Art is powerful in that it presents a narrative that helps people understand and make sense of their own situation. So much of how we, as individuals, approach and think about environmental justice and politics is shaped by the prevailing narratives surrounding us – narratives that we have heard and adopted. Art can be very effective in telling a story that illuminates the struggle tangibly and, in the simplest way, highlights the protagonists and the villains to show what is at stake. It allows us, as audience members, to envision a better world through our own emotional response and a way forward out of the present predicament. Through the very act of bringing people together to share space in mutual experience, art reminds people to see the world in a new light. 

Velina Brown, a fellow SFMT member, recommended that I speak to you about your roles in the 2013 SFMT eco-musical satire Oil & Water. Walk me through your inspiration and process for embodying the characters. What research was done?

In Act 1, “Deal With The Devil,” I played the Obama-esque presidential figure and in Act 2, “Crude Intentions,” my main role was that of a villainous Chevron executive. With a stripped-down crew, I had a variety of ensemble roles as well. There were many aspects to playing these roles, especially within the context of SFMT’s stylistic roots in agitprop and Commedia Dell’Arte. I thought about the physical manifestation of the characters and how the physical life of a person conveys to the audience their role in events. For the president, there was a sense of wanting to emulate Obama’s characteristic speech patterns and establish the character as a person who wants to be a hero but is not. With the Chevron exec, I took on the vocal and physical characteristics of a heavy, threatening, evil archetype often present in mystery thrillers. We amplify these character traits for comedic effect so that these ideas linger in the minds of observers. The creative exaggeration is intentional as the humor makes a point about the perpetuation of greed driving social issues.

To color our portrayal of the fossil fuel industry and inform our creation, we researched the activities of Chevron in the Ecuadorian Amazon. One book about climate justice that I highly recommend is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She really spells out the magnitude of the problem and the kind of changes that are necessary in relation to consumption, our use of land, and the ways in which our current systems are set up to perpetuate environmental devastation. It is written not from a place of nihilism or pessimism but from the belief that we can all do something to combat climate change.

Looking at your solo works, the fast-paced, subversive Type/Caste and Manifesto, which draws on creative ancestors Fela Kuti, Grace Jones, and James Baldwin, are you inherently perceived as an activist because you identify as queer and Black?

Theatre can be an ally and a tool for activism. Anything you put on stage is “political;” it presents or advocates for a specific viewpoint on reality. In that sense, there is always a political element to theatre and to what I do. However, my idea of activism is shifting from the performativity one sees on stage, or on social media, or even in street protests. 

Effective activism also consists of coordinated, strategic actions that are much less glamorous. I have been reading Bayard Rustin’s, From Protest to Politics, which talks about the kind of targeted political work that would improve conditions for all people, not just African Americans. He understood that after the landmark Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s, further progress would be connected to larger systemic changes that addressed the upward movement of wealth. Adolph Reed is another organizer and thinker who I’ve been greatly influenced by. He has an insightful perspective on the kind of organizing required to achieve quantitative differences in peoples’ lives. I am trying to connect more to this sort of activism in my ongoing work.

Since you were raised in Lagos, do you have a sense of what the conversation on the climate crisis is in Nigeria?

To my knowledge, the official position of Nigeria as a country in development doesn’t include mitigation conversations because the primary national industry is oil. In terms of the devastation caused by oil production, that is very much at the forefront of many Nigerian communities. Many tribes along the Niger Delta region, which is where much of the oil is extracted, have seen their livelihoods destroyed and their rivers polluted while receiving virtually no compensation. Multinational oil corporations bribe local officials and reap the benefits of extraction without facing any consequences for the destruction caused to these areas, which are deemed expendable. In their pursuit of natural resources, these major drivers of climate change contribute to the unequal distribution of oil wealth, increasing mass poverty. When local activists have tried to speak out about the injustice, they have disappeared, been imprisoned, and murdered. That is the reality.

Rotimi Agbabiaka in Manifesto. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Within the environmental movement, why do you think there has been a lack of queer, BIPOC, trans, and frontline voices in the mainstream conversation around climate change? 

In the United States, many voices at the forefront of conversations about climate justice are not amplified or highlighted. That is a manifestation of the way our public discourse about politics is heavily managed by a media apparatus entwined with corporate interests. Discussions about race, policing, healthcare, and systemic inequities are restricted by the dominant media narratives. This has led to a situation where the main authority on climate change is Al Gore, who proposes solutions that are corporate-friendly and wholly inadequate. Our news is designed to sell ideas that are not threatening to the neoliberal ruling elite so it’s really important that anyone truly interested in these issues seek out sources that are not MSNBC, CNN, or the New York Times.  

Reflecting on Green Voices of Colora compilation list of BIPOC climate activists by essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar, and the advocacy of marine biologist and policy expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, do you hope to see the emergence of more voices of color in the climate conversation?

It is wonderful to have people of all backgrounds and identities in the conversation. However, the most important thing is to have voices that are educated on the topic and who are not aligned with corporate interests. From my perspective, if you have BIPOC figures like Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas speaking, that is not particularly helpful to achieving climate justice. Beyond looking for a certain hue or sexuality, I am looking for a certain awareness that includes everyone, including marginalized voices. 

It is essential to realize that the injustices people are railing against – be they racial, gendered, or what have you – are linked directly to environmental justice. They are all connected to the exploitation of labor and of the planet. These ills are the product of our capitalist system –constantly generating products to profit the small percentage of people who control the majority of wealth.

I’m interested in how we build a coalition of people who recognize that this is their collective issue. How do we resist a ruling class (the Jeff Bezoses of this world) that is upheld by pitting people against one another through the myth of separation based on skin color, gender, sexuality, national origin, etc.? We need to rise united against the global elite. That is what will ultimately save our planet.

In the majority of online lists of American climate artists, there is usually only one person of color mentioned (such as Allison Janae Hamilton). Boundary-pushing visual artists Tavares Strachan and Torkwase Dyson are not even mentioned. I would love to arrive at a place where Black climate artists are sufficiently represented and don’t need a separate list for recognition. 

Yes, there are certainly layers and levels of access that have historically been more available in this country to white artists. This access leads to greater institutional resources such as funding and presence-making, often for worse. In our context, it makes sense that these lists are dominated by people of European descent.

There is a tendency to silo different kinds of oppression. To say, “oh, I’m working on racial justice right now, I can’t focus on climate” when these topics are intrinsically linked. We need to foster a greater understanding of this phenomenon to expand our view of intersectionality’s impact. The larger the movement we build, the more of a chance we have to have more diverse voices involved in environmental justice, and a greater opportunity to effectively enact the change we need.

What’s next for you?

I am working with Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience, currently gestating a piece for the fall titled Black To The Future. It was going to be a staged performance but with the pandemic, it will now have a digital component. It is a collective original piece exploring what the future will look like, while interrogating the notion of Black identity with the premise of a separatist Black American nation. We are going to channel a multitude of perspectives on Black identity and “Black future” in a humorous, satirical, zany, in-your-face production. This might build up to a live performance sometime in the next year.

Relatedly, I am also conducting and writing journalistic interviews. I had a piece published last week on the Theatre Bay Area website focusing on the perspective of Black Bay Area theatre makers who have been engaging in outsider art for decades, and how they are responding creatively during the pandemic. 

(Top image: Rotimi Agbabiaka in Manifesto. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.)

This article is part of our Black Artists & Storytellers series.

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Imara-rose Glymph is a student at Bennington College pursuing an interdisciplinary degree looking at multi-cultural identity, language, biology/ecology, and performative arts. Most recently, she was a media fellow with Global Citizen Year, documenting Indigenous Women’s agricultural stewardship, and a representative of Intersectional Outreach with Extinction Rebellion. She has been involved in the climate conversation since leading youth delegations in the GIN 852 conference Hong Kong, organizing bio-tours of mangrove conservation areas, and guiding students as an Arctic Hall Docent with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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