Juli Hendren may not have sought to change our perceptions of violent activism when she started composing Waste Her, her new one-woman show playing at Tricklock Space. But she clearly intended to explore how people move from enthusiasm to extremism, and why they come to view destruction as the only viable solution to the world’s ills. Inspired by the real-life exploits of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) between the early '90s and the early Naughts, Hendren conceived of Waste Her after reading Outside’s September 2007 interview with Chelsea Gerlach.
A pivotal member of ELF’s operations, Gerlach was seven months into a nine-year sentence at the time of the interview’s publication. She had been charged with arson, sabotage, aiding and abetting, and eco-terrorism. The judge found Gerlach guilty on all counts, and while terrorism carries a sentence of 30 years to life on its own, Gerlach significantly reduced her term by cooperating with prosecutors.
When she spoke to Outside, both in writing and in-person over the course of many months, Gerlach explained, “The primary responsibility we have as activists and as human beings is to ensure that whatever action we take is based on love. In my involvement with the ELF, we didn't do that, and in that sense we failed.” Throughout the interview, Gerlach acknowledges a shift in her personal ethos—away from the ELF’s direct action methodology—and she extends an apology to those people affected by the group's exploits.
Yet Gerlach concludes by saying that a “truly moral direct action” may indeed exist; that after “fully contemplating” one’s victims and the things they’re doing wrong (the things that make them a target in the first place), one may decide “that the most compassionate thing in the world is to light their buildings on fire.” It would seem, then, that Gerlach remains outside the sphere of nonviolence and pacifist dialogue, that she still finds a place for unilateral tactics despite her incarceration. When you read the entirety of the interview (here: tiny.cc/AbEnu), you’re racked with questions of how and why.
Hendren’s fictionalized interpretation of Gerlach's choices is beautiful; her postulations are thoughtful, balanced and compelling.
Hendren’s fictionalized interpretation of Gerlach's choices is beautiful; her postulations are thoughtful, balanced and compelling. She explores the hows and whys of extremism through a fictionalized group called the Environmental Liberation Movement and the relationship between eco-saboteur Jessie and her straightlaced (except for a credit-card debacle) sister, Samantha. We are invited to follow Jessie’s progression from awkward youngest daughter, to nature-loving teen, to devastated orphan, to environmental advocate, to fire-wielding radical, to forlorn convict, to ... well, the Alibi doesn’t like to spoil endings, so let’s just say it’s a tear-jerker.
Which is the second-most remarkable thing about Waste Her. Throughout Hendren’s narrative, Samantha expresses the audience’s discontentment with Jessie—often employing a comedic tone and providing a pressure valve for the story’s tensions. At the same time, Samantha’s love and devotion elicit feelings of solidarity with both sisters. Because we know Jessie like Samantha knows Jessie, and because we’re made privy to her progression, we feel bound to her. And so, no matter how abhorrent Jessie’s behavior, we can’t neglect her humanity; we’re unable to condone her actions, but we can’t condemn her, either.
The first-most remarkable thing about Waste Her, then, is Juli Hendren. Her acting is chillingly powerful. In addition to playing the evolving roles of both Jessie and Samantha, Hendren is their father, Jessie’s boyfriend (fellow environmentalist Elijah Wells), Jessie’s attorney, a flighty sorority girl and a stern judge. Each character has its own persona, accent and mannerisms, and in many “scenes,” the characters interact with one another; coming out of one actor, this could easily feel schizophrenic and confusing. But it’s not at all. It’s fluid, clear and convincing.
Between Hendren’s composition and performance and director Summer Olsson’s guiding influence, something brilliant has been born. It is truly—to use a term this writer has carefully reserved for nearly six months—a tour de force.