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Verdigris tells the story of West Dallas environmental injustice, resilience in ‘Mis-Lead’

By Michaela Rush, Report for America Corps Member

April 3, 2024

West Dallas

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Esther Villareal, a West Dallas resident and master naturalist, was one of several West Dallas neighbors interviewed for the film documentary element of this weekend’s performance of “Mis-Lead.”

“For decades, the residents have felt like the city has turned away, felt like the EPA clean-up wasn’t enough, felt like they’re being lied to,” Villareal says. “The arts dedicating an entire show to the community is incredibly affirming.”

Villareal’s hope is that the performance both highlights environmental injustice, and the resilience of neighbors over decades. 

Master naturalist and West Dallas neighbor Esther Villareal poses for a portrait on Nov. 23, 2021. Photo by Nitashia Johnson.

Verdigris Ensemble partnered with Dallas Free Press on “Mis-Lead,” an interdisciplinary arts performance telling the story of West Dallas’ history of environmental pollution and contamination, Friday through Sunday, April 5-7, at 7:30 p.m.

Verdigris’ founding artistic director Sam Brukhman says he first learned about lead contamination and air quality issues in West Dallas from Dallas Free Press founder Keri Mitchell, and felt inspired to use his platform to share these stories in a new way.

“When I think about Dallas, I think about how resilient communities in West Dallas have been,” Brukhman says “How, in the face of complete hopelessness, they’ve been able to not only persevere, but make considerable progress.”

Janie Cisneros poses near her home and the GAF plant on February 12, 2022. Photo by Nitashia Johnson.

Verdigris commissioned composer Kirsten Soriano for the performance. She says the inspiration for the piece “Air Particulates” came after she read a story about Janie Cisneros from KERA. After talking with Cisneros about how the air quality affected her family’s everyday activities, Soriano began combing through Dallas air quality records.

“I was trying to think of what would be a meaningful way of incorporating some data from that air sensor into a song,” Soriano says. “I found the worst day, and I think it was May 17 [2023]. That afternoon the air particulates shot up to over 8,000.”

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A screenshot of data from the Toronto Street SharedAir Monitors from April 5, 2023 to publication via SharedAirDFW.

That data from SharedAirDFW comes from a sensor posted on Toronto Street near Fish Trap Lake. On a typical day in West Dallas between April 5, 2023 and publication,  it showed particulate levels under 100 micrograms per cubic meter, with spikes in July and August around 700. 

In the same timeframe, the sensor at the Trinity River Audubon Center in southern Dallas typically registered under 50 micrograms per cubic meter each day, with the highest level at 675.

“Mis-Lead” will combine choral performances, documentary footage, archival transcripts and a variety of instruments — including items Soriano found around West Dallas — to create an immersive experience combining the best of music, theater and documentary.

“What we do is really really unique,” Brukhman says. “It’s like theater but it’s not, it’s like choral music, but it’s not … all these different elements that play a role in creating a new art movement.”

Villareal, Cisneros and Luis Sepulveda will join the creators on a panel on opening night, to discuss the history and creative process behind the performance.

West Dallas neighbor and environmental activist Luis Sepulveda waits for his microphone to be turned on during Mis-Lead documentary filming. Photo provided by Kirsten Soriano.

Soriano describes her composition for “Mis-Lead” as a type of historic landscape, drawing quotes and inspiration from West Dallas neighbors as well as the poets Maya Angelou and Octavio Paz. 

While the issue of West Dallas pollution is multi-faceted, Soriano says the music is all about residents. What struck Soriano was the comparison between her own childhood in idyllic nature, versus the reality of lead, asbestos and air contamination that West Dallas children have to live with.

“It’s not our story to tell; we wanted West Dallas residents to tell it themselves,” Soriano says. “Those songs are being surrounded and woven into the fabric of the story. By hearing it from people who experienced it themselves, [audiences] will feel and connect to it.”

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West Dallas residents can fill out this form to receive a discount code for $5 tickets. General admission tickets are $43, including fees, and group rates are available on the Verdigris website. Shows will be from April 5-7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, which has ample free parking.

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