Sunday, November 11, 2007

waiting for gumbo

On Saturday I went to see Waiting for Godot. Co-sponsored by Creative Time and the Classical Theater of Harlem in partnership with local colleges, high schools, and community organizations, the show was free and open to anyone who wanted to come. There's excellent information about the production here:

Waiting for Godot ran for two weekends, and was staged in two different neighborhoods. The first two performances took place at an intersection in the Lower Ninth Ward. I saw it the second weekend, when it was staged in and around an abandoned house in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly (in/near the Upper Ninth Ward depending on who you talk to). At each performance there was seating for about 600 people, and they were turning folks away by the hundreds every night. On the night that I went -- the last night -- there were probably about a thousand people hoping to get in who were unable to get seats.

My evening started at 4:45 p.m., when I arrived to wait in line for my ticket. They were planning to hand out tickets at six, and there were already about 40 people in line ahead of me. They ended up giving out tickets an hour early because the line was so long. At that point I was no longer waiting for my ticket to Waiting for Godot, I was waiting for gumbo: the free gumbo they served at 6:30 p.m. It was delicious—well worth the wait!

The crowd was huge and included a lot of people who weren’t from New Orleans: college students, tourists, volunteers like me, and people who'd traveled to New Orleans for the show. I wish that more locals had been present, since the show was largely directed at them and designed to address the experiences of people living with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The people from the New York theater companies were particularly conspicuous. They weren't trying to be rude – they were just behaving like New York theater people (unsurprising) – but in New Orleans their attitude was inappropriately cool and brusque. Ditto most of the college students.

At seven o'clock the Salty Dog jazz band started to play, and they were wonderful. They let us in a procession across a bridge spanning the London Avenue Canal, down the levee (where it breached), and up into the bleachers. By lucky chance I ended up sitting in the third row in a crowd of people from the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly – right behind Anthea Pierce, whose son Wendell Pierce (a prominent actor) played the leading role of Vladimir. Wendell Pierce grew up in Gentilly, and is definitely a local hero. Ms. Anthea helped introduce the play, reading a poem and inviting us all to enjoy not the show, but her son’s performance. She was a hit.

The show started a bit late (8:15 or so), so we got some extra music. The band played jazzy gospel hymns and we sang along. A few people got up and danced, and everyone was moving – especially for “Elijah Day” and "When the Saints Go Marching in."

The show was beautifully, sensitively acted and produced. Although understated, Waiting for Godot’s relevance to post-Katrina New Orleans was intrinsically unmistakable and underscored by skillful staging. Vladimir’s and Estragon’s pursuits involved quite a bit of beat boxing and hip-hop dance, which was a particularly nice touch. Though seemingly light of heart, the character’s attempts to fill their empty time become increasingly contrived as the play progresses. They desperately try to keep busy in order to distract themselves from their nightmares, their memories of a traumatic experience which remains undefined throughout the play, and from their growing awareness of the fact that their lives now consist entirely of marking time. They complain about the silence and desolation of their meeting point—and we listened from the silent wreckage of what used to be a thriving urban neighborhood, a neighborhood in which many people are now waiting now for Godot but for FEMA, for insurance money, for help of any kind.

Vladimir and Estragon long to change their situation, but are held by the conviction that when Godot finally comes, they'll be saved. As the wait increases they forget what this salvation will actually look like. They begin to question their conviction, their memories (did Godot actually agree to meet us here?), their sanity, even their existence. How can you exist if someone who holds so much power over your life can ignore you so completely?

One of the lines in Vladimir's final monologue reads, “The air is filled with our cries!” Pierce delivered this line leaning out the second-story window desperately waving a white handkerchief. A few moments later he flipped through a flood destroyed photo album, showing us pages and pages of unrecognizable pictures and delivering the line, "Everything is dead." Many audience members responded with murmurs of agreement, "Amen," and "yes, it is."

Needless to say we gave an enthusiastic – if tearful – standing ovation. Music is a fundamental part of the healing process down here, and as we finished clapping Pierce began singing an upbeat, joyful, gospel “I’ll Fly Away,” encouraging everyone to join in. We did.


Reed said...

so very cool...

clairebearkiss said...

i'm very glad you got to see that production! and jealous!
i am a big fan of Creative Time, i have a huge 'organizational crush' on them & the work they do. And I just found out that Wendell Pierce was in it when Creative Time sent out their "how it went" email. I'm a big fan of his, from his role on "The Wire"