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LAist Interview: Nancy Keystone, Writer/Director of Apollo

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Science and art rarely mix. And yet, despite the near polar opposite natures of these two fields, there's something that makes a collaboration between science and art undeniably captivating. Perhaps it's because behind the often sterile and calculated shell of the world of science, there lies the same human stories we find in every other area of life. And while we regularly see tales of greed, corruption, triumph, racism, fame, and passion acted out in the political arena, or on the athletic field, or in the celebrity sphere, the scientific world has just as storied a past, rife with conflict, competition and courage.

In Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation, a performance piece written and directed by Nancy Keystone and produced by the Critical Mass performance group, the history of one spectacular moment in American science and innovation is explored through theatre. The Space Race marked a triumphant moment in American history and established the United States as a global leader. However, at the same time as the U.S. was being recognized as the most progressive nation in the world, the country was being torn apart by racial strife as African-Americans struggled for the equality they had been promised a hundred years earlier. Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation, the final installation of a three-part play (Parts 1 and 2 premiered at the Kirk Douglas in 2005), uncovers the surprising connection between the Civil Rights movement and the race for the moon.

The play chronicles the intersection of the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Where did the idea to explore the relationship between these two seemingly unconnected moments in U.S. history come from? Why did you want to explore it?

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NK: The idea came from the facts, themselves, proving yet again that truth is stranger than fiction. The U.S. Army brought a group of German (Nazi) rocket engineers to the U.S. through a secret and illegal intelligence program at the end of WWII in order to teach us how to make ballistic missiles. They were originally brought to Fort Bliss, TX, and in 1950 they were moved to Huntsville, AL where they later headed the NASA program to design the Saturn V moon rocket for the Apollo missions. They were there throughout the decades of the 50s and 60s and some of them still live there. I was utterly fascinated by the crazy collision of these former Nazis and the Civil Rights movement in the deep South. And it struck me that these two movements—the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement-- were happening literally at the same time in the same place, but that somehow in the American psyche, they are two completely separate mythologies. So, that was the first impulse.

And then, I realized that Jules Verne had written his famous book, From the Earth to the Moon, which profoundly influenced every rocket engineer (and which prophesized the details of the rocket launch to an astonishing degree) in 1865, partly as a response to the U.S. Civil War. In his story he uses guncotton to fuel his rocket, and I got to thinking about what Huntsville was like in 1865, and the direct correlation between the expansion of the cotton industry with the expansion of slavery, and how the country was built on the backs of slaves. And I thought about all that cotton carrying this latent explosive power.

So those were the disparate seeds that grew into Part 3.