The city never turned the water off. The toilet still works —
So you got running water in the kitchen — and a shower. That's a start.
But without gas, there's no hot water in the place.
Cold showers'll make a man of you.
I had no idea how horrible a cold shower could be," John Biguenet says. "It was awful." It's roughly two weeks before the National New Play Network's rolling world premiere of Shotgun, and inside Southern Rep's Uptown rehearsal space — a nondescript corner building on Freret Street sparsely outfitted with faux props, masking-taped floors and a few actual set pieces — the playwright is flashing back to the most trying period he can remember: fall 2005.
"My wife and I were staying in a day care center for the first month with just cold water. We'd spend the whole day gutting our (Lakeview) house, so we'd come home filthy. It didn't rain the entire month of October. It must have been 95 degrees every day. We would bring one gallon of water each for every two hours we were going to work on the house. We'd fill the car, basically, with water."
At the end of each 12-hour shift in a HAZMAT suit, Biguenet's workday was just hitting its stride. He had signed on to be the first guest columnist for TimesSelect, a now-defunct online subscription service of The New York Times' op-ed page. And thus, throughout the month of October 2005, Biguenet did double duty: by day, tearing down his home and picking up the scattered pieces of his life and at night, serving as the Times' lead New Orleans stringer, reporting in first-person detail on the sorry state of a city — his family's city since the 1700s — left in ruins by Hurricane Katrina and feeble levees built at a bargain.
"I would go back to this day care center and sit in this little 12-inch red plastic chair and write a column on a little 18-inch green plastic table," he recalls. Then, the hardest part: getting the articles to Manhattan from a ghost town with precious little in the way of utilities or power. "In the beginning I simply drove around, trying to find somebody who had left their computer on with Wi-Fi."
One night, in his adopted neighborhood of Uptown at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Magazine Street, Biguenet noticed a man "sitting in this darkened car playing with his lap, it looked like. Suddenly it occurred to me: Maybe he's got a laptop! More and more people figured this out, so there were these lines of darkened cars, people seemingly playing with their laps, who were [stealing] Wi-Fi."
Biguenet and his wife later rented a house nearby, and that intersection went from an Internet crime scene to the birthplace of his crowning work. Shotgun follows Rising Water, which premiered at Southern Rep in March 2007. It has since gone on to seven national productions and numerous awards and honors, including a 2008 Pulitzer Prize nomination. The plays are the first two legs of a planned trilogy — a dramatization, in effect, of Biguenet's Times blogs.
"I used to get coffee at the little CC's on that corner, and there's a shotgun across the street," he says. "When I was working on Rising Water, I used to look at it in terms of: What would have happened in that attic that night? But then, having written Rising Water, I looked at it differently: two families living under the same roof but with a wall running between them. That seemed to be a useful structure to create a story about where New Orleans was four or five months after the flood."
The racially charged story, about a black woman and her displaced father who rent the vacant half of their Algiers shotgun to a white man and his son from Gentilly, inspired a bit of life-imitating-art hiring. Southern Rep artistic director Aimée Hayes recruited Valerie Curtis-Newton, who heads the directing program at the University of Washington School of Drama in Seattle, to helm the production. Curtis-Newton is a black outsider; Biguenet a white local.
"I felt very strongly it needed an African-American director," Biguenet says. "Like the subject of the play itself, this needs to be a collaboration in which many points of view are represented. I can't imagine having done the first production of it without an African-American director. I'm very lucky it turned out to be one of the most talented African-American directors I could possibly have had."
"A lot of my friends who are black theater artists have been focused on the production of [Joe Turner's Come and Gone] at Lincoln Center," Curtis-Newton says. "I think it's August Wilson's best play, because it gets at the heart of what he called the psychic wound of slavery. I think in many ways what John's undertaking is documenting the psychic wound of Katrina. ... I think this idea of a psychic wound, and the legacy of it over time, is one that theater artists are going to revisit over and over and over again with regard to Katrina and its aftermath."
It won't be like before the flood, babe. Things have changed. These people you'll be going to school with, they been through the same as us.
Same as us? They lose their house, their school over this side of the river? They haven't lost a thing, these people.
Everybody down here lost something. Even if it was nothing else but watching New Orleans die.
I seen more than just a city die.
On Oct. 16, 2005, Biguenet filed his eighth column with The Times. Titled "How They Died," it relates the anecdotes of friends who lost people they knew or loved to Katrina. It also poses a straightforward question: How could the floodwaters have caught so many storm-seasoned residents by surprise? The answer, he came to find, was maddening.
"What came out of that article was the realization that it couldn't have been a hurricane that killed these people," Biguenet says. "At that point the Corps of Engineers was insisting [the flooding] was overtopping, typical storm surge. One of the first things I did when I got back here was to walk the levees, and you could see the breaches."
One survivor, he writes, "lived near the 17th Street Canal, where a 200-foot section of the levee had given way, so the water reached them in daylight. If the flood had hit them in the dark while they slept, I realized as our friend repeated their story, they wouldn't have stood a chance.
"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."
The article served as a personal blueprint for Rising Water. "It was coming out of a great sense of rage at what I had discovered: the needless death of a thousand, 1,500 of my fellow citizens," he says. "Rising Water was really a kind of question: What happened in those attics that night? And so I just tried to speak for them and tried to understand for myself what would have happened if my wife and I had been in one of those attics."
If the queries raised in "How They Died" were the impetus for Rising Water, then it was the responses from Southern Rep audiences that begat the expansion into a cycle. (The former is still the most successful production in the theater's 22-year history.) Planned "talkbacks" following the performances were so engaging, Biguenet says, that every show soon became a community forum for residents to discuss what they had experienced — and still were experiencing 18 months later.
"The audience almost wouldn't leave the theater," he says. "It became clear that there was a great deal more to say about what these people had lived through, what we all had lived through."
Curtis-Newton included. She, too, was in New Orleans in late August 2005, working on Stop Kiss, her second production for Southern Rep. (She also directed Yellowman in 2004.) "I evacuated the day before the storm," she says. "I thought maybe I was ready to come back, because I had my own sort of process about what Katrina and its aftermath did to me, survivor's guilt and a lot of other stuff. Most of my career has been on new work, so it's something I know how to do. And I thought, well, this would be a nice time to roll all those things into one."
The first conceptual meeting for Shotgun came in August 2008, with Biguenet and Curtis-Newton discussing the architecture of a shotgun house as a metaphor for black and white New Orleanians living side by side, divided. "For him the storm presented a moment when the wall came down," Curtis-Newton says. "And it doesn't look like that's going to remain the case, that the wall's rapidly being rebuilt, and the play reflects that."
The parallels between the play's onstage racial dynamic and behind-the-scenes working relationship are not just implicit, they are intentional, both parties say. In the weeks leading up to the opening, as deep scene work in rehearsals progressed, Biguenet and Curtis-Newton engaged in a spirited round of debate about everything from the dialogue and motivation of individual characters to the order of the action.
"It's an unusual play in that the very process has the same subject as the play itself: a group of people trying to do something difficult," Biguenet says. "In the case of the characters, to live through that moment in New Orleans history, and for us, it's making art. It takes a great deal of art to tell the truth. And in our case, I think, in theater it takes a number of artists working together to be able to enunciate accurately the question that the community needs to discuss."
"Because we are, like in the play, a black woman and a white man working together, there are things that we just didn't agree about in its trajectory," Curtis-Newton says. "We had this moment where John saw it without me on the other side. I saw it without him on the other side. Now we're trying to negotiate: What is that place in the middle that both serves the play and honors the characters that we're creating?"
Two sets of scenes in Act II were reordered as a result, and conversations continued about another: a pivotal interchange in Act I between two black characters. "Sitting over there by the window, keeping my mouth shut and just watching as Val ran through the whole second act, it became obvious to me, sitting as if a member of the audience, that it just doesn't quite add up," admits Biguenet, whose rewriting process is continual. "(Danish writer Søren) Kierkegaard says the artist is the person who can live longest with insecurity. I think in theater you really see that. You wait and wait and wait, until you finally decide, 'That's how it's going to be done.' It's difficult — the more you stay open to possibility, the better the play will be."
Things are changing, Dex. The flood washed away what used to be. Something new could take its place.
You really think that things are ever gonna change down here? They already going back to the way they always were — and worse.
But look at us, you and me, living here together under one roof.
Yeah, with a wall running between us.
While working nightly on revisions to Shotgun, Biguenet also is mapping out the finale to the Rising Water cycle. Tentatively titled Mold, it concerns a man determined to rebuild his house in eastern New Orleans, only to find himself then consumed with tearing it down to get at residual decay he can smell within. As Shotgun takes place a season after Rising Water, Mold will be set in the summer of 2006. And, like its predecessors, Mold uses architecture as a metaphor for addressing the psychic wounds inflicted by Katrina.
"In the case of what happened to New Orleans [that summer], when suddenly we were beset by murders and suicides, more problems than we could have guessed, it was as if we were tearing our house apart," Biguenet explains. "We could all sprint for six or seven months, but when we began to look up and realize the finish line was 20 years away, I think the exhaustion of what we were all going through began to wear on us. We kept expecting, as people had on their rooftops, the government to show up and start helping. And we realized that summer they're not coming. They're probably never coming. And we're on our own."
Biguenet, also a novelist and Loyola University professor, acknowledges the unique advantages of the theater as a medium for both creating artistic entertainment and posing questions for a wounded community to ponder collectively. "As New Orleanians, we need a place where we can talk to each other about what we've been through," he says. "Theater provides that. It's a kind of therapy, but it's more just neighbors sitting down and talking about things that have made these years special, and things that have made them difficult.
"Rising Water taught me something essential in the difference between fiction and theater: Theater has to do with the city in which it's performed. It's transformed the way I read Shakespeare and much theater. Shakespeare's plays were written for his fellow Londoners; Euripides was writing for his fellow Athenians. So a play is a kind of forum where a community can face the questions that the playwright and the actors and the director and the designers have posed for it. In Rising Water, the discussions certainly provided the answer to the questions we were raising."
Curtis-Newton, whose Hansberry Project focuses on promoting black artists and African-American performing arts in Seattle, takes it a step further: "I think it's the reason that theater exists. There's a moment for us to actually have a shared experience, and it's not just the audience having the experience; they're having it on the stage. Hopefully this audience, like many of Southern Rep's audiences, will be diverse enough that there's a little bit of danger in sitting next to somebody who's not like you. We get to have our O. J. (Simpson) moments, right? When black people and white people sit side by side to view the same event, we're never seeing the same event."
The connections between the Hansberry Project and Southern Rep don't end with Shotgun. The latter has a collaboration planned for 2010 with Universes, a Bronx-based theater company, whose hip-hop production the break/s is on Hansberry's June docket. Artistic director Aimée Hayes says she also is exploring a partnership with John O'Neal's Junebug Productions, a local African-American theater group.
"The theater renaissance happening in this city, there's an explosion of young companies," she adds. "What that's getting back to, and it's been since Katrina, is the community needs to respond. They need to respond to something live; they need to have a conversation. There's something that they want back from the people onstage that's electric, that I've never seen here before. And I think Shotgun's going to help continue that conversation, and add to the explosion, I hope."