But a few hours later, as the actors sashay across the stage as a flamboyant and bare-chested Napoleon or a ditsy Britney Spears anxious to give marital advice to her fans, something special happens: The kids laugh -- not in giggles, but in genuine, belly laughs. And then something even more profound unfolds: Individual members of the St. Bernard Parish-based Evacuation Theatre Troupe slowly return to the stage without their wigs and boas, simply as themselves, to face the audience and confide their anguish. In monologues, they share how their community has been uprooted since Hurricane Katrina; how their homes and possessions were destroyed; how they lost friends, neighbors, a husband; how the horrors the kids witnessed on TV more than a year ago have forever altered real people.
By the end of the play, many of the teenagers are crying.
"Seeing people sob, which isn't really what we want, but to see people react this way, it's really powerful," says Shannon Gildea, an actress with the troupe. "We feel like they get it. They understand us at the end, which is why [the play] is so great, because it puts a face on the tragedy."
For the past six weeks, the band of seven thespians has crisscrossed the Midwest sharing their very personal Katrina stories with more than 1,500 people. The storm monologues, however, come at the end of the group's three-part play, a good hour after the actors have taken their audience on a lighthearted romp through the history of the Louisiana Purchase and the contributions of charismatic, homegrown characters from Edwin Edwards and Richard Simmons to Truman Capote ("That's not writing," he tells Anne Rice. "That's just typing.") and, of course, Britney Spears.
"I thought there was something in those stories that we wanted to share," says playwright and actor Barry Lemoine. The play isn't "just about the hardship; it's about the history and the humor of Louisiana," he says. "If you just do a play about Katrina, it's so new and fresh that it would be hard to sustain a 60- to 90-minute play. So we developed these zany characters, starting with Napoleon. Once we hit them with the funny stuff, and they're laughing with us, then when we share our true Katrina stories it adds a potency because they can understand that when we cry, this isn't just a character, but it's about real people."
After three sold-out performances in the greater New Orleans area, the troupe departed from Chalmette at the beginning of September. Their mission: to bring the New Orleans experience, both in its eccentricities and despair, to states that once comprised the Louisiana Purchase.
At a performance in Lacombe shortly before they left the state, actor Christian Bordelon told the audience what the troupe planned to say while on tour:
"We're going to let them know that when you take away all the parades and the music and the architecture, all that hooey, really the best thing about where we come from is us -- our people," he says placing his hand on his heart. "We're a good people, and they shouldn't be afraid to ask us how to pronounce our names. ... New Orleans," Bordelon continues, "it's a wacky, dirty, beautiful, nurturing, these days beat-up kind of place, but the colorful history of Louisiana has entertained and affected millions. And everywhere we're going on this tour, they're going to be relating to us ... by our history, by what we like to call 'the land deal of the century' -- the Louisiana Purchase."
Since the tour began, the cast has performed in more than a dozen venues across the former Louisiana Purchase, and a few outside. Along the way, they've received three standing ovations, write-ups in the local press and thousands of dollars in donations. A few people have made donations without even seeing the play. One man saw the "Voices of Louisiana" sign on the side of the RV while driving down the highway and called the phone number. When he met up with the crew, he brought a $100 check and a photo album from his post-Katrina relief work in St. Bernard. A portion of the donations fund the trip, but because the cast held fundraisers and received multiple private and corporate donations before they left, a big part of the proceeds go to scholarships.
Several of the cast members, people who have worked together on plays for years, founded the Voices Foundation in November 2005. Through donations to the foundation, the group recently awarded two St. Bernard students Milton Sand Memorial Scholarships, in memory of troupe member Rose Marie Sand's husband, as well as copies of Milton Sand's pen-and-ink drawings his wife was able to salvage from their Chalmette home. The troupe expects play proceeds to allow them to continue to award the memorial scholarships into the coming years.
Because a big part of the Voices Foundation's mission is to preserve the history and stories from the storm, the troupe was delighted to meet Jimmy and Jenny Nguyen during their first gig outside the state. The children are originally from Pass Christian, Miss., but moved to Oklahoma City after Katrina. Like all but the two cast members who aren't from St. Bernard Parish, their family home was destroyed in the storm.
A few days after the Oklahoma show, the troupe arrived in McPherson, Kan., for a weeklong sojourn. Will Schneider, an actor with the troupe, knew the Kansas college town and many of its residents well; he and his parents resettled there for several months after the storm. Bringing the play to the community that took his family in after Katrina marked his first time back since he returned to New Orleans last fall.
Crew members quickly renamed the town "Willville" because he is on a first-name basis with almost every person the troupe met, including the president of the local university.
"In the two- to three-month period (that Schneider and his family lived in McPherson), they managed to build friendships that could quite possibly last a lifetime. They have without a doubt touched the hearts of these individuals," Bordelon writes in the troupe's online road journal. And in a self-reflecting tone, he adds, "How many people did we inspire during our evacuations? How many will we inspire on this tour? Will our struggles be accepted, heard, answered, respected?" The troupe later received a standing ovation and performed an encore during its performance at the university.
On the surface, the online journal provides friends and family with updates on the troupe's progress. Like many of the skits the troupe performs, some of the posts are comical: Cast members plot each other's demise. They ramble on about certain members' lack of hygiene, and they chronicle the Laurel and Hardy-style antics that occur. But on a deeper level, the journal also allows cast members a quiet outlet for self reflection.
For example, upon returning to the RV after being invited to a home-cooked dinner, Rose Sand writes, "As I hear the winds raging outside of the RV tonight, I'm reminded of a time a little over a year ago when friends and neighbors back home waited out a storm on rooftops in winds stronger than these Kansas bursts. ... (It's) so strange to be so far away, in a land untouched by Katrina. So strange to be inside a beautiful, comfortable home that reflects a family's lifetime of memories and remember all of us who lost such a place."
Sharing the losses many of the cast members suffered, along with Louisiana's off-beat history, may be the official mission of the trip, but as the tour approaches the halfway point, it's apparent the road trip has become a life-defining journey. Along the way, they've learned to fly-fish, have slept in a field of sunflowers, gawked at the Big Dipper and the Milky Way in a sky devoid of city lights, spotted deer and bison and bears, and feasted on buffalo meat and lamb testicles. And they've bonded.
"What's become more obvious to me as each day the tour progresses is that the dynamics of the group is one of team spirit and mutual respect -- peppered with jibs and jokes hale and hearty," Rose Sand writes. "Whether it's setting up camp, figuring out the intricacies of unfamiliar equipment or making the most of a meal, everyone pitches in and makes it happen."
When they perform in big cities like Denver or Chicago, they often stay in sketchy, Norman Bates-style motels. But most nights they camp in national parks or RV camps. On those star-filled nights, one person takes a turn cooking. With seven people in the group, each person cooks and cleans, once a week. But you won't find this group roasting weenies and crafting S'mores. They throw down: Fried chicken, pork roast, you name it. And at the end of the night, the cooking and cleaning comes with a reward: The person who cooks gets to sleep in the coveted double bed in the back of the RV. The rest of the troupe members stretch out on an air mattress, a couch or under the stars.
"One of the blessings of this trip has been the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty that exists in mid-America," actor Tom Hassinger writes. "It's easy to wax poetic about the Rocky Mountains, but there's abundant beauty as well in the rolling farmland of Iowa, the corn fields of Nebraska and the flat plains of Kansas."
Over the weeks following the performance in Kansas, the troupe performed at Denver's Skyland Community High School, a 19th century opera house in Red Cloud, Neb., population 1,313, the prestigious college preparatory Latin School of Chicago and Chicago State University, which boasts an 86 percent minority student body.
"That's one of the great things about the play," Lemoine says, "is that not only does it transcend state lines, but it also transcends color barriers."
Because the cast performs for audiences as young as 9, they often alter the content of the play to ensure it's appropriate. But more commonly, the script changes in order to keep the humor fresh. They keep abreast of the news. (U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's recent resignation in disgrace will soon be added to the script.) And they try to include references to the area in which they are performing.
They turn up the humor when performing at home, but on the road they "condense the wackiness a little bit, because we believe they need to hear more of the hurricane stuff," Lemoine says.
The hurricane stories begin on Sept. 9, 1965, the day Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans, toppling levees and flooding the Ninth Ward. Lemoine was 2 years old back then when his family climbed to safety in their Lower Ninth Ward attic. In an all-too-familiar scene, he describes how rescuers boated the family to safety, leaving their dog stranded on the kitchen table.
That same day marked one of the happiest in fellow cast member Rose Sand's life. It was the day she met her husband at a hurricane shelter.
Fast forward to Sept. 9, 2001: Shine Productions, the St. Bernard-based company headed by Lemoine and Sand, launched the premiere of An Evening With Betsy, the only play produced in the parish to be nominated for a Big Easy Award.
And most recently, when Lemoine and Gildea returned to their old Arabi home after Katrina, they found Sept. 9 spray-painted on their front door. "So exactly 40 years to the day from when the rescue workers were coming to my home and we had to leave my dog behind," Lemoine tells the audience, "the same date was spray painted to my house" in 2005.
In a later monologue, Tom Hassinger plays Chalmette High School principal Wayne Warner. During his piece, he chronicles the chaos and fear that gripped the school as floodwaters rushed through doors and windows in less than 10 minutes.
Bordelon's Katrina story comes from a montage of friends and neighbors' real-life experiences. He begins his monologue by picking through the remnants of his character's home, the day before it's scheduled to be demolished. As he picks through imaginary photos, he finds a stuffed animal his 92-year-old neighbors gave his little boy. The woman was ill. She didn't want to leave. Her husband wouldn't leave without her, he says.
"That's their window right over there," he tells the audience, "right where it says two dead." Holding the stuffed animal, he talks about how he found the couple embraced in their attic, and then he begins to talk about God.
"See that sunlight there, leaking through the tracks in my walls?" he asks a silent audience. "... I look at the light and kind of hope that, maybe, that light can heal a broken heart. I see everybody's house guts out on the street for everybody in the world to see. And I hope that sunlight heals all of us, you know? Somehow I just have to believe that we did the best we could and that the Lord is going to make things right again. I don't believe those idiots who say that the Lord brought this on New Orleans because we're sinners here. I think that's a measure of what a man thinks when he don't know God. You want to know what God is? God is the warmth of that sunlight, peeking through the cracks of my house. God is the compassion of those volunteers doing everything they can for free. God is the dignity of an old couple holding hands forever."
In the troupe's most personal monologue, Sand talks about the day she and her husband of more than 40 years fell in love. Both students at Chalmette High School, they met in an evacuation shelter during Hurricane Betsy. Her husband, played by Schneider, tells the audience, "It was fate that brought us together .... And me and Rose getting together like that, that was the best gift because it was a gift of the heart."
But from her slumped posture, the way she holds the 8-by-10 portrait of her and her husband, rarely looking up, the audience can sense how their story will end. On Jan. 25, 2006, only a few weeks after the couple moved back into their flood-ravaged Chalmette home, Sand found her husband had died in his sleep. The doctors would later tell her it was a brain aneurism.
Before her husband died, she didn't plan to go on the tour. But more than a month into it, she says, "I know this is where I need to be, and it's what I need to do. I've struggled, especially with telling my story, but I've had people in the audience who can relate come up to me and tell me my story has touched them."
Her fellow troupe members say they watch her bleed with each performance.
By the end of the storm monologues so many people in the audience are openly weeping that the troupe decided to bring the play back to its beginning and add a little comic relief. So they parody one of New Orleanians' biggest sources of anguish -- FEMA. Fix Everything My Ass, they tell the crowd, and once again they've got them laughing.
As the troupe rounds out the first half of its tour at the end of this month, members plan to take a pilgrimage to Lake Itasca, Minn., the source of the Mississippi River. For the past month and a half, they've focused on performing and trying to book as many venues in as many states as feasible. On their way back to Louisiana, after meditating at the source of the river that put New Orleans on the map, they plan to shift their focus.
"Everybody has been running around for so long, trying to get their insurance together, their house together, their business together," Lemoine says, "that we're going to use the last couple of weeks of the show to reflect and grow as artists and begin to heal."