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Attorney/playwright tackles climate change on stage

June 06, 2017 12:41 PM

By Mary Cross

In March, “Fairly Traceable,” the newest play by Tulane Law School alum Mary Kathryn Nagle (L ’08), premiered in the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Delving into climate change’s impact on Native American communities, the work was inspired by Nagle’s experience in Tulane’s environmental law program. The play even includes a character based on Professor Oliver Houck.

Set post-Katrina, the legal drama is a love story between a Ponca man and a Chitimacha woman who is a Tulane law student.

A nationally acclaimed playwright, Nagle is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a partner at Pipestem Law Firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She also serves as executive director for the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.


Attorney/playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle (L ’08)

The chance to study environmental law with Houck at Tulane Law initially drew Nagle to New Orleans, she said.

“He impacted my career both as a playwright and as a lawyer,” Nagle said. “The play’s title comes from a legal doctrine that Professor Houck taught me about.”

The “fairly traceable” doctrine surfaced in the Supreme Court’s 1992 ruling in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. The doctrine, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, states that a plaintiff has to prove that harm they have suffered is fairly traceable to the conduct of the defendant and not a third party, making it harder for climate change victims to hold accountable companies profiting from environmental destruction.

Nagle’s play was also shaped by stories of tribes who have suffered environmental crises, such as the Ponca Tribe. The tribe was ousted from its ancestral homeland by the government and endured a tornado during its Trail of Tears march toward Oklahoma in the late 1800s.

“That was something to wrap my head around,” she said. “What’s it like to lose your home that’s been yours for thousands of years? I think that resonated with me because a lot of people after Katrina were asking, ‘How could this have happened?’ So I brought in a character from the tribe who was also impacted by southern Louisiana’s fight to survive.”

Nagle said she hopes audiences take away an understanding of the legal doctrine but she also wants them “to understand tribal sovereignty and what it means for tribal nations to lose their homeland and then try to use U.S. law to save it.”

Nagle aims to stage a future production of “Fairly Traceable” in New Orleans.

Note: A version of this story originally appeared in Tulane University's New Wave.