Cheap hotels on Airline Highway may not be the best places to spend the night. But in Lisa D'Amour's Airline Highway, which opens this week at UNO's Nims Theatre, many of the colorful residents of the Hummingbird Motel — a "shout-out" to the former Hummingbird Hotel on St. Charles Avenue — don't spend much of their nights there.
Krista is a Bourbon Street stripper with a manic personality. Sissy Na Na is a sassy but maternal transgender woman who hosts karaoke at a Bourbon Street bar. Tanya, an aging prostitute, meets clients at the motel. Terry is a handyman who tries to scrape together a few dollars by fixing decaying pieces and parts of the hotel. Bait Boy, who's moved to Atlanta, has tried his hand at bartending, barking outside clubs and working as a bouncer. He's returning to the hotel for a party. Miss Ruby, a former burlesque star, is throwing herself a wake, a final party she doesn't want to miss.
It's a community of folks who've been down on their luck or struggled with substance abuse or other misfortunes. The Hummingbird Motel on the edge of the city is their makeshift home. But Bourbon Street is where D'Amour found some of the play's inspiration.
"I had this incredible experience at my bachelorette party where my girlfriends and I all went to the Chris Owens show," D'Amour says. "We didn't know what to expect. We thought it would be kind of kitschy. We walked out of there so inspired by Chris Owens' energy, by her sense of humor, by her sexiness, by her shamelessness and being in her body and having plastic surgery and staying young and doing her thing. ... I think of Miss Ruby as a mother figure who is there to say, 'Be your best self. Be who you are. Don't be ashamed.'"
While many of the characters live on the margins, economically and in other ways, they hold their heads high. They're not shy about enjoying themselves, though they balk at paying $75 for a ticket to the New Orleans Jazz & Heriage Festival as tourists pass by the hotel on their way to the festival. They instead appreciate life's cheaper thrills, and they suspect they're not alone.
"Tourists don't want a Coyote Ugly — chain — training wheel strip joint," one character says. "They don't want a parade inside their air-conditioned hotel. They want some dirty shit to happen, authentic top shelf shit."
The faded and beaten facade of the hotel on Southern Rep's set is modeled on the London Lodge Motel on Airline Highway and the Capri Motel on Tulane Avenue. The London Lodge also served as the model for a production on Broadway in New York in 2015. The work debuted at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which commissioned the play.
With a large, detailed set, a main cast of 11 and many more extras who come and go from the hotel and the party, it's not an easy production to mount. But the busy traffic at the hotel, like the swirl of Bourbon Street crowds, gives the work some of its vibrancy.
"I wanted it to be a naturalistic play where characters could just talk, because my experience of New Orleans is getting lulled into really interesting stories by people who have lived here a long time," D'Amour says.
"At times, you have to rehearse it as though it's a musical score because of the way dialogue overlaps and people talk simultaneously," she adds. "To me, it points to my family, who won't shut up and always talk over each other in a really loving way."