Putting Katrina On Stage
Playwright John Biguenet talks about mold, architecture, and why New Orleanians know how to party.
The bisected porch and living room of a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans home sits on stage at the Contemporary Arts Center's Freeport-McMoRan Theater. It's a sight with which many in the audience are far too familiar. This piecemeal house is the set of Mold, a world premiere production currently running at Southern Repertory Theatre, and the final play in John Biguenet's Hurricane Katrina-centered Rising Water trilogy. Biguenet sits in the back row, arms and legs crossed, while the surrounding audience reacts to his sharp lines — stories that hit close to home.
Biguenet, who has made his mark as an award-winning playwright, is also the author of short stories, radio plays, and a novel (Oyster), among other things. He himself is a native New Orleanian. He was the first post-Katrina guest columnist for The New York Times, and, like many others, has his own Katrina story. I sat down with Biguenet in his office at Loyola University New Orleans where he is a professor of English.
Can you tell me a little bit about your Katrina experience?
It was the first time we ever evacuated for a hurricane. We left the day before the storm, my wife and my son and his two cats. And I'm completely allergic to cats, so I had to wear a mask, a painter's dust mask, for the entire evacuation. We went to my brother's house in Dallas and it took us eighteen, nineteen hours to get there.
Because of traffic?
Because of traffic…It's one of the biggest migrations in human history…The entire Gulf coast…was fleeing. The hurricane passed New Orleans at about eight-thirty Monday morning, and by afternoon it was gone. The sky was blue, and most places were still dry. Tuesday morning we were having coffee at my brother's house, getting ready to pack the car and come back to New Orleans, and we heard in the next room on CNN that there were unconfirmed reports of flooding. And although we didn't realize it, Tuesday was the day it reached our house…By that afternoon, CNN had cameras on the ground, and it was clear that buildings were up to their gutters in rising water, and people were already begging for help. My columns and videos in The New York Times tried to report on that.
What was that like, writing for The Times?
What happened in Dallas was that other relatives had no place to live in New Orleans, so they began to show up at my brother's house. [We] thought we should make room for the other people and go stay with my daughter. The only car we had was a VW Beetle, so, with two cats in the back, my son and my wife and I drove to New York…We heard on TV in a motel one night that there was a debate in congress about whether we should be called evacuees or refugees. And I wrote an essay about how when a New Orleanian is in the United States, that person is not an evacuee, not a refugee, but in exile. I sent it to my agent just to amuse him, and he sent it to The Times. And they called and said, "We want this guy to write for us, but he has to go right back to New Orleans." The city was still under marshal law…so they gave me a letter of transit to get past the military check points.
First night, we couldn't find a way into the city because there were machine gun emplacements everywhere, so you couldn't get into the city at night…But the next morning we found a way in, and we arrived at our house…I kicked in the door because it'd swollen shut. As soon as the door swung open, the stench of the mold was overwhelming…I think I wrote in one of my columns about how gorgeous the mold is, like filaments of cotton candy. But everything was destroyed. Our sofa had floated across the room. It was on the staircase…We got up to the second floor and the spores had already reached everything. So we had to empty the entire house.
What did the mold smell like?
It smells like death. In my play, Mold, I mention this. Somebody starts coughing and they say, "Oh, you've got the Katrina cough." Everybody had it in their upper respiratory system. Mold releases spores constantly into the air, and that's what you're breathing in all the time…Doors had been left open, windows had been left open. Everything had been looted, too, so looters left everything open...the wind would carry the mold.
I understand that your column, at some point, sparked this trilogy of plays?
I wrote a column called "How They Died." The corps of engineers maintained until June of 2006 that the levees had not been defective, that they had been overtopped by a storm surge. But as I talked to people and learned how people had died, that made no sense at all. Water in a hurricane doesn't rise as quickly as the water rose in New Orleans. At a talkback, in fact…an elderly lady said it came up eight feet in ten minutes. And that's not a hurricane. That's the breech of a levee. I wrote a column about how exactly people died, and the sudden rush of water that trapped them, in some cases in the middle of the night…I began to try to imagine what it was like for people in those hours. Without any warning, having no idea what was happening, they faced a catastrophe unlike anything that they could have imagined. And Rising Water came out of that.
That's how the play begins.
I was having coffee on Magazine Street and I looked across the street and there was an old shotgun, and it had a window in its attic…I was thinking, "What would it have been like if my wife and I had been trapped up there?" And that's really where that play began. [Since] the image around the globe had been people on their rooftops and emerging from their attics, in Rising Water I thought I could begin with something as simple as that. A first act in the attic, the water keeps coming, and so this older couple is forced to break onto the roof.
So that was Rising Water. Did the rest of the trilogy come to you in order?
By that point, spring 2007, it was really clear that the story was not just what happened that first night; that was just the beginning. And so I began to look at the months after the levee collapse, in particular what happened to racial relations in Shotgun. For a few months, ancient animosities had been put aside because the situation was just too desperate. If you saw someone in trouble, you just stopped and helped. It didn't make a difference what color they were, whether you knew them or not. Everybody was in the same boat. But then, around January, when the mayoral campaign for reelection was just beginning, Mayor Nagin made his 'Chocolate City' speech in which he said that white Uptowners were going to try to keep black New Orleanians from returning to their homes. It seemed in the months that followed that the city was as racially tense as when I was a child…and so my play tried to examine what happened in this window.
Was there signifigance to choosing a shotgun as the setting?
A shotgun is the most characteristic form of architecture in this city because we're surrounded by water on all sides, so we have very narrow lots, and the shotgun is one room after another without a central hallway. Often we have double shotguns that mirror each other but under a single roof. So as the white man tells the old black man after he falls in love with the old black man's daughter, 'You know, things are changing. Look at us, white and black living together under one roof.' And the old man says, 'Yeah, but with a wall running between us.' [Shotgun] covers from about December 2005 to about April 2006. In the summer of 2006, though, the adrenaline had run out, people were exhausted, and the suicides and the murders began. It was a place [that] was having a nervous breakdown.
And this is when Mold takes place…
I tried to look, in Mold, at that first summer, people trying to come back but facing two problems: One was a completely inept government, and the other one [was] bottom-line insurance companies that were going to offer absolutely no help...Mold is about four characters. [There's a] young couple (Trey Burvant and Kerry Cahill) who spent the last year in Texas. They come back to the young man's parents' house…We discover very quickly that his parent died in their attic…They've come back from Houston to meet an insurance adjuster almost a year after the flood, but somebody from the city shows up, a volunteer (Carol Sutton), and informs them that their house is going to be demolished. And then, when the adjuster (Randy Maggiore) shows up, it turns out that the insurance company is going to offer very little in terms of helping them to rebuild…So just as Rising Water is about an attic and a roof, Shotgun is two families, black and white, living in mirrored houses with a shared wall, Mold is about a house collapsing under its own corruptions and a young couple trying to figure out if they can bring it back to life or not.
So you've brought this to actors now. Do they have a hand in what goes on stage?
One really has to approach theater as a collaborative art…each of the actors has brought an enormous amount of intelligence to the script and to their transformation of the script on stage.
What about the fact that these actors probably have their own Katrina stories as well?
Everyone, because we've all been part of the experience of this catastrophe, feels an enormous obligation to get it right, [to ensure] that there's nothing false on that stage, that the voices you hear are the voices of New Orleanians, that the audiences who hear them will be able to nod in agreement and recognize themselves on that stage. So it's been completely exhausting.
How do you handle a tragedy that is still so fresh?
Rising Water was commissioned by the National New Play Network. Because it won [this commission in 2006], it wound up in the showcase of new American plays in which six or seven of American playwrights have staged readings [in New York]. The audience is nothing but theater professionals. One of the things that happened at Rising Water was that somebody said at the end,"It's a very funny play, but I was ashamed to laugh." They said, "You've got to give us permission to laugh." I thought it was enormously useful. That hadn't crossed my mind. In the rewrite of Rising Water, when the couple run into their attic, the husband kind of half-awake says, "Are you sure you jiggled the toilet handle?" And that's a joke. There's no mistaking that, because you don't get eight feet of water from a toilet that's overflowing. And that comes very, very early, within the first five minutes, so the audience has been signaled that it's OK to laugh. So I think the humor was really an important part of this, and that, too, is representative of what the city was like. The New Orleanians who were here when the levees collapsed are descendants of people who lived through cholera epidemics. Yellow fever would kill a few thousand people every summer. They've had war, fire, the city's burned to the ground I don't know how many times. These are people with a lot of grit. Because we're so good at throwing a party, outside the city New Orleanians might be seen as frivolous, but the fact of the matter is we're so well-acquainted with death that we know how to live.