June 23, 2012, 8:03 p.m.
BLUE LAKE, Calif. — Here in the heart of north Humboldt County (that’s NoHum to the uninitiated), a little theater company is taking on a topic both taboo and omnipresent: marijuana.
Behind the Dell’Arte Company’s ensemble of original songs and Emerald Triangle humor is a bittersweet, multi-generational tale about the cultivation culture that celebrates the herb while laying bare the industry’s dark side.
An analysis presented before the Board of Supervisors recently estimated that the economic impact of pot — which “Mary Jane: The Musical” alternately refers to as “just a plant,” “the demon weed” and “medicine” — on Humboldt County is more than $400 million annually.
At a time when sanctioned medical marijuana use has prompted an explosion of growers and dispensaries in the state, and federal officials are cracking down, the theatrical production tackles some resulting truths: environmental degradation from irresponsible outdoor farms, home invasion robberies that plague indoor growing operations and the panic over dropping prices that would plummet further if the bud ever made its way out of the shadows of the black market.
Then there is the human tale.
Marijuana has been the family business for many since back-to-the-land hippies arrived here more than four decades ago and began to cultivate it as a way to make a living. Children who grew up covering for their parents’ illegal ways now are growers — and are raising their own kids to keep secrets too.
“It’s not that growers are bad people, but it has ramifications for generations,” said Dell’Arte’s longtime producing artistic director, Michael Fields, who put together the musical last year and updated it for another season. The 2012 version opened to a sold-out crowd Thursday.
“A lot of people have to live a bit of a lie,” Fields said.
That lie, the production notes with pointed humor, extends to residents who aren’t directly involved in the industry but are nonetheless complicit through their enjoyment of its riches: a relatively solid county economy (in a region where traditional industries of fishing and logging have been decimated) and ample spending that sustains delights like the “18 kinds of chard” referenced in one snatch of dialogue.
“It’s so nice to deal with these issues by poking fun … without pointing too much of a finger,” said Kristin Nevedal, chairwoman of the Emerald Growers Assn., based in Garberville. (That’s in SoHum.) “Whether you’re in the industry or not, it’s ingrained in our culture.”
Dell’Arte is known for its “theater of place,” which takes on topics that matter to the community. Another current production, for example, deals with end-of-life decisions among aging baby boomers here. But Fields took a new approach with “Mary Jane” — commissioning 14 songs from local artists that spoke to their experiences within the culture, then crafting a plot with the riches that flowed in.
Those included a romantic duet between an indoor plant and outdoor plant that have some irreconcilable differences, a reggae slap-down of the Obama administration’s stance on medical grows, a heavy-metal tirade about the thirst for profits and the soul-searching “My Son,” about the implications of raising a child in the industry’s fold.
The story that binds the lyrical accounts is one of the coronation of Mary Jane (a.k.a. Empress Sativa) as the Queen of the Emerald Ball.
The central character, Mary Jane — played by Joan Schirle, the company’s founding artistic director — is a back-to-the lander from the early 1970s who saw modest outdoor cultivation of the “herbal relaxant” as a way to put food on the table. Then, as the industry boomed and cultivation practices grew more sophisticated, she was sucked into the good life.
Mary Jane questions her parenting as her son, a more reckless grower, returns home with his own baby girl. In the production’s darkest piece, he taunts her with a song about what the industry has become:
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