It is the year 6 C. E. – that is, six years after the Catastrophic Event that wiped out everything on the Internet, left Michigan and Arkansas with oceanic coastlines, and killed off all but about 10,000 humans.
Among the survivors, a group called the Plutarchs has the means to move “off-planet,” and they’ve enacted compulsory reproductive laws to keep the species going. But members of a scrappy outlaw group, The Collective, have vowed to lower the curtain on the whole anthropogenic horror show by refusing to procreate.
Their motto is “The world ends with us.”
Enter 26-year-old Nora Harlem (Tyler Williams). She escaped from the cataclysm in New York and has been traveling through New Mexico with a band of Collective members. But she holds a powerful secret inside her – one that The Collective would see as a betrayal.
Nora’s journey toward safe refuge, as she meets a series of threats and protectors, is the story of “The Collective,” a terrific stand-alone radio play created and written by Asata Radcliffe, directed by Radcliffe and Fred Greenhalgh, and produced by Greenhalgh, of Maine-based Dagaz Media with the support of the Maine Arts Commission.
Smart and richly imagined, “The Collective” launched in December and is now available for free streaming on Soundcloud through Dagaz Media, with a run-time of a little over an hour.
The story’s dystopia is set in a not-too-distant future (“Day Zero” happened in the year 2027 of our current Gregorian calendar), and much of its culture still has a foot in phenomena that are more or less familiar to us in 2022: Charging stations for vehicles, underground radio (hosted by the ebulliently hip DJ Bristol, beautifully voiced by Amina Korima), and remote transmission of messages.
This general sense of familiarity gives a punch to the aspects of language and culture that are new, including repeated references to the catastrophe as “Day Zero” or “C.E.,” and to pregnant humans – like Nora – as “carriers.” The drama’s near-future also holds a few big technological leaps, chief among them a way to communicate with the dead – or, at least, their downloaded consciousness.
Conversations with the dead are among many of the play’s useful vehicles for exposition, as when Norah talks with her mom, Sara (Cortina Jackson), a founder of The Collective. Humans weren’t designed for “perpetual barbarism,” insists Sara, reaffirming the basis of her philosophy so resolutely that Nora can’t bring herself to share her secret with her dead mother.
The living communicate remotely via radio transmissions, both live and recorded, and these present another narrative device in the story. As Nora splits off from The Collective and travels alone through the desert by bicycle, she records messages to Young (Eric Yang), a Collective ally who knows her secret, describing what she sees and understands of where she is.
In one message, she observes that she’s seen many people of color like herself, and explains why the Southwest is now a “safe zone” for Black and Brown people: the Plutarchs view them as “expendable,” and don’t bother hunting them down.
Pointed details like this one, astute and deftly embedded in the story, are characteristic of Radcliffe’s rich and subtly drawn cultural, political, and even agricultural world-building. A Plutarch interrupts The Collective’s radio broadcast to remind members what it offers to those who give up their vows: dropped terrorism charges, “free transport and accommodation both on- and off-planet,” and, for men, “V reversals” (that is, vasectomy reversals – a prospect that elicits cheerful mocking and shudders from The Collective members).
Carriers are attended to at Empathy Builder Clinics, supposedly politically neutral but kind of shadowy (the Clinic Director, chillingly voiced by Elena Rosa, does not inspire confidence). And the most valuable technology of this dystopian future may be the aquaponic farming system conceived and maintained by genial Dr. Hartwell (Brian Wilson), who briefly takes in Nora.
As Nora encounters all of these allies, hazards, and innovations, characters are voiced with nuance and brio, and sound design (by Jason DeWald) presents them with remarkable texture and depth of field. From the back of a busload of Collective members, we hear a Plutarch hacking into The Collective radio broadcast, then a loud cacophony of protests. Further away, the driver Jefferey (Nate DuFort) snaps about charging them extra for the radio, and then we hear a woman at close range muttering “Extra!” under her breath. A little later, as Jefferey and Young help Nora, who is cramping, we hear a woman at a distance mutter, “Why’s she with us?”
An evocative original score by Stephen Duros heightens tension and atmosphere, and DeWald’s sound effects are richly immersive – the spinning wheels of Nora’s bike, transmission beeps and static, bubbles of Dr. Hartwell’s water-based farm, and the metallic hum of a beekeeper’s bees.
And Radcliffe’s story sustains a steady and poignant rising tension, as Nora encounters strangers of unknown motivations and loyalties, and as she and others quietly contend with the larger philosophical question of how to live in a profoundly broken world.
At one point, Nora listens to a Collective broadcast, an interview with a Lakota eco-punk musician, and a teenage girl (Chantal King) calls in. “I want my life to be about music,” she says, “and I don’t know how with the world ending.”
“The Collective” ends with an interestingly ambiguous resolution, and that question lingers through it: How do we live at the end of the world? With intelligence, wit, and compassion, this radio drama considers a question that might be worth some thought well before the end comes.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.