Taylor Gruenloh’s outrage over what has transpired in North St. Louis County because of nuclear waste contamination drove him to write “Purple Heart City.”
His play is having its world premiere March 16-18 and 23-25 through his theater company, Tesseract, which performs at the .Zack Arts Incubator, 3224 Locust, in midtown, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. He is the artistic director. Brittanie Gunn directed the piece, which stars Kelvin Urday, Ashley Netzhammer and Darrious Varner.
The main character, Daniel, has not been seen in 18 months. “When he suddenly returns home, hoping to pick life up where he left it, he finds a family that is slow to forgive him. He also finds a community that is tired and haunted by a past of having nuclear waste contaminating its creeks and backyards,” Gruenloh said.
It hits close to home for him.
“I had the inability to ignore what was happening to the community because of the nuclear waste contamination of Cold Water Creek. My family is from North County — I grew up there my whole life, and my parents’ house was right near the creek,” Gruenloh said.
“I have had relatives who have passed away from cancer the last few years, family members whose health is declining now, and there is a fear that some people in this community will accept the events happening around them and not put up a fight, because we’re conditioned to be too tired to fight,” he said.
Gruenloh grew up near Florissant and Black Jack.
“A lot of my adolescence was spent at Jamestown Mall,” he said.
Gruenloh has been writing plays for more than 10 years now. A graduate of Webster University, he earned an MFA from the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.
“At Webster, I was taught by the great Michael Erickson, who is nominated for Best New Play this year by the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards (“Honor Student”), and in Virginia, I was mentored by Todd Ristau, who has helped me find my voice over the last few years,” he said.
Gruenloh is an adjunct faculty member at St. Louis Community College, and a lecturer at Missouri University of Science & Technology.
He has had multiple plays produced around the country, including St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, Asheville, Denver, and New York City. Last year, Tesseract presented his play “Adverse Effects,”
It was first presented as a staged reading under the title “Samantha’s Field” at the 2015 Hollins Playwrights Festival.
Dan Smith of the blog fromtheeditr described it as “…meticulously researched and deliberately presented, building the drama of ordinary people facing wealthy giants who normally crush them,” and “[Taylor] Gruenloh spares nobody in his script: the pharmaceutical companies, the marketers, the academic community, so eager to get in on the big money by signing off on drug tests, and, of course, Congress.”
The play is opening in another city this week — at the Atlantic Stage Company, which is in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on March 22.
Throughout his writing life, he has been spurred into action through his affinity for social activism.
“As a proponent of investigative journalism, I’ve always had the desire to uncover truths and support those who are doing just that,” he said. “I think there should be magnifying glasses everywhere, supported by the community at large, to investigate miscarriages of justice, bad healthcare ethics, and crimes against our environment. But the investigators have to believe they are supported and that their results will be welcomed by the community.”
While researching information for the play, he was most surprised to learn about the uphill fight of those demanding reparations from the government and the chemical companies.
“The state level of statute of limitations regarding personal injury means that people only have five years to sue for problems that won’t develop for much longer than that. When it comes to environmental law, there seems to be more protections for big businesses than residents in a polluted area,” he said.
HBO recently premiered the hard-hitting documentary “Atomic Homefront,” which is about the dereliction of duty regarding the nuclear waste. Gruenloh said he considered his play a companion piece.
Several documentaries have been made about the North County situation. He recommended “First Secret City,” which is available on Amazon.
“It’s not as sleek and colorful as the HBO doc, but I think it delves into the history of where the problem came from better than ‘Atomic Homefront,’ but both are must-sees for anyone living in North Country right now.
He wants people to take away from his piece, and the documentaries is that what happens to the environment around them is important.
“And that fighting against those who think they can pollute our land and get away with it is a winnable fight, that there’s no such thing as being ‘too smart to fight,’” he said.
Tesseract was formed in 2010, and they produced their first season in spring 2014. The group aims to become an artistic home for a diverse ensemble of acting artists and a leader in new play development in the Midwest, he said.
“It was simply supposed to be an open sandbox for me and my friends to play in while we all went to different schools. It was meant for us to test out what we were learning in a practical environment,” he said.
“And it just kept growing. Our philosophies kept getting shaped by the artists we worked with, and soon enough we had a confidence in ourselves. “When we saw a need in St. Louis for new plays and new play development, we kept the doors open and kept growing,” he said.
“Tesseract tells big stories small,” he said. Its mission is to produce contemporary, diverse live theatre and provide a creative home for St. Louis artists.