... And the Ball and All is a broad, cheerful, satiric evocation of the New Orleans that was. The play is set in the 1950s and the Krewe of Terpsichore is a ragtag bevy of lower-middle-class women who have resisted the great flight to "Da Parish" and the suburbs. The krewe meets at Arceneau's Mid-City Lounge -- one of those quintessential neighborhood joints whose best days are behind them. These gals are outrageous and yet true-to-life in the way all great caricatures are. As I wrote in a review of one of the many previous incarnations of this perennial: "If there was a Y'at flag, ... And the Ball and All would be draped in it. The local argot gets a workout (from 'arthuritis' to 'zink')."
In fact, at its first appearance, Graham's play won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Comedy. Then, the hit kept playing here and there, hither and yon for years afterward (including at Mandina's restaurant and the North Star Theater across the lake). Graham says ... And the Ball and All was the gamble that allowed him to give up his day job in restaurants and put all his energy into theater.
Curiously, this laugh riot grew out of a brush with tragedy. "In 1994, my mother had a heart attack," Graham recalls. "I had to drop everything I was doing to take care of her. My mother and I would reminisce about the days when I was growing up and the old neighborhood. You see, I grew up on Louisa Street. There was a bar on the corner. A flophouse for Merchant Marines across the street. All that came back in my mind. I decided to try and write a 'real' play."
Graham's mother recovered, and she's once again in the best of health. But, under the impulse of the reminiscences they shared, Graham did, in fact, write his 'real' play. Or at least a first draft of it. The next step was showing the draft to his longtime friend and partner in crime, or rather partner in theater, Becky Allen. Graham and Allen had worked together often since the '70s -- most memorably, perhaps, in their raucous and inventive cabaret act at the Mint Bar on Decatur Street.
"We had some meetings at my place with the actresses," says Allen. "Ricky brought his sketch of the play, and we all started telling stories out of our lives that his play made us think of. Ricky used those stories. But he molded them, so the whole thing would have a beginning, middle and end."
Does she remember any of the lines that she herself came up with? "Oh yeah, sure, baby. My father used to say, 'I don't like eating artichokes, because I don't like ending up with more than I started.' Ricky loved that!"
Allen, who was in the premiere of ... And the Ball and All in 1995 (and in several revivals since then) will be back in the cast at Le Petit. It's the first time that the nine-time winner of Gambit Weekly's "Best of New Orleans" (c) poll for "Best Local Actress" has been back onstage since she fled Katrina. Among other ... And the Ball and Allvets in the cast are Yvette Hargis, Amanda Hebert, Rene Maxwell, Rebecca Taliancich, Patrick Mendelson and Shannon Mathis.
Will this new version take Katrina into account? "Only indirectly," says Graham. "The play is still set in the mid-50s, like it was from the beginning. Of course, the recent calamity changes what the past means to us. Why, a nurse told me that, during the hurricane, people in her ward started doing lines from ... And the Ball and All to keep their spirits up. That's like people during the London blitz singing Noel Coward songs. So, maybe folks are right when they call the play 'comfort-food theater.' Maybe, right now, we all could use a little "comfort food."