Second Act

Dan Cameron on Paul Chan's Waiting for Godot in New Orleans

New Orleans

Left: Performance view of Waiting for Godot. Estragon (J. Kyle Manzay) and Vladimir (Wendell Pierce). (Photo: Donn Young) Right: Photographer Amanda Weil and Creative Time director Anne Pasternak. (Photo: Frank Aymami)

Two images, bookends really, stand out from Creative Time’s presentation of the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s (CTH) production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward last Saturday night. The first image was celebratory—at precisely 7:30 PM, Rebirth Brass Band kicked off a typically raucous secondline, and the steady flow of five hundred attendees through the front gates and into the bleachers marked the first occasion since Katrina that the crippled neighborhood has been a cultural focus for the rest of the city. The second image was considerably more somber. After taking their final bows, cast members turned their backs on the audience and walked briskly into the inky nighttime panorama from which most had made entrances: a nondescript backstreet leading ominously toward the same levee whose breach two years ago nearly transformed this neighborhood into a ghost town.

Today, life in the Lower Ninth Ward is infused by the grassroots politics of postcatastrophe housing, a local movement focused on the homes of thousands of families displaced by the floods that followed Katrina, who would like to come back to their old neighborhood but lack the means to rebuild or relocate. Stripped of some 80 percent of its prestorm habitation, and with experts warning locals that their homes are all but guaranteed to flood again, the Lower Ninth Ward is a neighborhood whose bereft residents, after waiting patiently for the government to help them, are now engaged in the remarkable (or, if you insist, foolhardy) struggle to take back their weed-choked empty lots on their own. A better locale for Godot could hardly be imagined, an assertion borne out in local housing activist Robert Lynn Green Sr.’s short but heartfelt preshow benediction. More eloquent still were the scattered gasps and applause when Vladimir (played by New Orleans native Wendell Pierce), having been asked by Estragon if he recognizes the place where they are standing, turns toward a field of weeds with outstretched arms and bellows with indignant sarcasm, “Recognize it? What is there left to be recognized?”

Left: The Rebirth Brass Band. (Photo: Frank Aymami) Right: Jenisa and Isaiah Washington with artist Mark Bradford. (Photo: Brendan Griffiths)

The masterstroke of Creative Time’s production was not simply staging Godot in the Lower Ninth but presenting it outdoors, at night, on a once-thriving street corner so pulverized by the 2005 floodwaters that barely a visible trace of a house remains. In the middle distance, a pair of FEMA trailers huddled forlornly, while the faraway hum of cars crossing the bridge and the nearby rustling of wind through dried weeds blended eerily with the visual accompaniment of boats gliding slowly and soundlessly up and down the river, which hovered invisibly in the background. Under Christopher McElroen’s brisk direction, Beckett’s famously verbose play, which is equally revered for its long and weighty silences, generated fevered monologues and existential retorts that would sometimes hang in the air for several moments, while ghosts whispered noisily in the adjacent fields.

The spellbinding two-and-a-half-hour production was largely the brainchild of artist Paul Chan, who visited New Orleans a year after Katrina and couldn’t shake the impression of so many people waiting for something or somebody who would probably never appear. After securing the collaboration of McElroen and the CTH, Chan began the slow process of befriending artists, educators, clergy, and neighborhood leaders throughout the city, eventually attaching himself to the art faculties of UNO and Xavier University, and otherwise weaving a diverse network of supporters that enabled him to bring together a remarkable cross-section of New Orleanians—along with a sizable contingent of out-of-towners—for an open-air, world-class production of an avant-garde play in a neighborhood where few have ventured since the floodwaters receded. As if to burnish the Lower Ninth’s growing significance as a festering symbol of Bush-era cronyism and ineptitude, hundreds of would-be spectators had to be turned away the first two nights due to lack of seating, resulting in a third night being added, and the production’s success will no doubt precede it when it moves to the nearby Gentilly neighborhood this weekend. With his stunning one-two act of creative jujitsu, Chan has succeeded in giving the people of New Orleans an unforgettable night of theater and has provided the art world with a tangible platform for connecting with New Orleans’s meaning in the coming post-Bush era: living witness to the failure by the US government to provide its citizens with even the most basic protection and recovery during and after the largest natural disaster in our country’s history.

Left: Walker Art Center curator Peter Eleey, artist Rodney McMillian, and Cara Starke. Right: Artist Willie Birch. (Photos: Frank Aymami)