Academic journal article The Southern Review

From Rage to Page to Stage to Rage

Academic journal article The Southern Review

From Rage to Page to Stage to Rage

Article excerpt

WHEN I BEGAN WHAT WOULD BECOME a trilogy of plays about the flooding of New Orleans and its aftermath, we had been displaced since the levee collapse months before, our house still rank with mold even though my wife, our son, and I had gutted much of it. Sleeping at first in a day-care center that lacked hot water and finally finding a vacant three-room shotgun to rent, we salvaged what we could of our lives.

Earlier, while still exiled from my hometown by martial law, I had been asked by the New York Times to serve as its first guest columnist. Writing for the Times that sweltering October in the day-care center--sitting on a twelve-inch-high blue plastic chair with my portable computer on a barely taller red plastic table--I documented life in a ruined city as dazed survivors wandered home from shelters across the country. The more I reported on what had happened, however, the more I began to doubt the official explanations of how a great American city had been destroyed and nearly fifteen hundred American citizens had drowned or died of dehydration in attics and on rooftops as they awaited help that never came.

As the first anniversary of the disaster approached, I wrote a column that began, "Most of what you think you know about what happened in New Orleans a year ago is probably wrong." For most Americans, that continues to be true.

The city did receive a glancing blow from the weak side of Hurricane Katrina as the storm moved up the Mississippi-Louisiana state line. However, as USA Today reported, the highest sustained winds measured in New Orleans were only ninety-five miles per hour, making Katrina a strong Category 1 hurricane and thus likely to cause "minimal" to "moderate" damage. And that's exactly what the storm did.

But in the hours after the hurricane had moved north of the city, the failure of defective levees designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inundated 80 percent of New Orleans, an area seven times the size of Manhattan, with salt water up to fourteen feet deep. Having resisted the accumulating evidence for nine months, insisting over and over again that the levees had been overtopped rather than breached at the base, the narrative of Corps spokespersons and their allies in

Congress drowned out the more complicated truth. When Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, its commandant, finally admitted in June 2006 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for most of the flooding of New Orleans and the attendant deaths and destruction, the nation had already moved on to other issues.

By the time I wrote that anniversary column in August 2006, I had begun Rising Water, a play about a couple trapped in their attic and then on their rooftop by the flood. An earlier column I had written back in mid-October 2005 entitled "How They Died" explained that it was well into the night after the hurricane before the floodwater reached some neighborhoods, but then rose as quickly as eight feet in ten minutes. My column concluded, "So I imagine that's how they died, many of the drowned, trapped in a dark house or in a pitch-black attic, if they made it that far, as water rushed in from failed levees our government could not find the funds to strengthen."

In the spring of 2005, Ryan Rilette, then the artistic director of Southern Rep Theatre, had produced my play The Vulgar Soul, a tale of a stigmatic with no religious faith. It became the best-selling new play in Southern Rep's twenty-year history. When I mentioned my idea for Rising Water to him after he and his family had returned to New Orleans, he said to put aside everything else I was writing and Southern Rep would produce the play.

My first drafts were so angry that I kept killing off the couple in the first act, prompting Ryan to ask what he was supposed to do for a second act. Little by little, though, the characters took on greater dimension, and I wrote myself and my anger off the stage.

One of these later drafts won the 2006 Annual Commission award of the National New Play Network and an invitation to present a staged reading of Rising Water at NNPN's National Showcase of New Plays at New Jersey Rep that winter. …

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