Planting, Sowing, Reaping a Lifeline

The cast of Uprooted: The Katrina Project warming up for Friday’s premiere at Jump-Start. Photo by Justin Parr.
Uprooted: The Katrina Project
8 pm Fri, Mar 30
& Sat, Mar 31
$12 general;
$9 student, senior
8 pm Thu, Mar 29, free preview for Katrina Evacuees
Jump-Start Theatre
108 Blue Star

The winds have subsided and the headlines are gone. But for many of those who survived Hurricane Katrina (and the biggest civil-engineering disaster in U.S. history), the battle to save New Orleans continues.       “Our goal is to keep the story alive in the eyes and hearts of people around the country,” says Nick Slie, who portrays several characters in Uprooted: The Katrina Project, and cares deeply about restoring New Orleans and its displaced communities.

As yet another hurricane season approaches for a city with its resources and natural defenses still stretched to the limit, Slie is frustrated by bureaucratic inertia and Americans who seem ready to write off the nation’s most unique city as a loss.

“It’s off the front pages, but we’re not a doomed city. We can save it,” Slie says. The rising tide of apathy and the plodding pace of restoration funding is maddening, however. “You feel like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and no sound’s coming out.”

Uprooted: The Katrina Project gives voice to that angst with ordinary characters amid extraordinary circumstances. The nine cast members use performance art, dance, singing, music, poetry, and theatrical storytelling to convey the struggles Katrina victims faced and the lessons they learned.

“Everyone in the company is from the hurricane region, and most are from New Orleans,” says John O’Neal, artistic director of Junebug Productions, the successor to the Free Southern Theater, a theatrical group O’Neal founded in support of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s.

“A lot of the material is from our own experiences. Some of it is from the experiences of others we encountered while working on this piece,” he says of the characters in the play. “We try to draw them all together in a story of people who come to recognize that their fates are all intertwined.”

The production is set on a stark, empty stage with projected images of New Orleans before and after the storm. Performers begin as themselves, morph into their characters, and return as actors at the end of the show.

Most of the characters are based on everyday New Orleans residents, although President Bush, other government officials, and a TV reporter make an appearance.

O’Neal’s main character is Esu (pronounced eshoo), a mythical African spiritual entity who is consulted in times of crisis.

Another stage presence — Mama Nola — “represents the soul of the city of New Orleans,” according to Kathy Randels, who performs the part. “She speaks directly to the audience.”

As “somewhat of an old whore,” Randels says, Mama Nola is “not without fault,” but this “hard-living woman has lots of children, and she’s very distressed about what the storm has done to her babies.”

The story follows Miss Lily, portrayed by Valentine Pierce, and her search for her 16-year-old grandson Dwayne, or “Little D.” Miss Lily, nicknamed T-Momma, also has a wise-beyond-her-years granddaughter, Nobi.

“My character’s the type of woman who’s strong, but will never let anyone starve,” Pierce says. “She might chastise you a bit, but she’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”

Miss Lily’s path crosses with two Cajun cousins named Seymour and Cane, played by Bruce France and Slie.

“Seymour’s this land developer, and he’s hustling everyone to give up their property,” says France. “But he has a good and a bad side. At other times, he’s helping people out of bad situations.”

A couple from Mississippi, Thibedeaux and Dorothy, join the maelstrom so that Dorothy can find her Aunt Lily. Most of the characters face life-changing decisions as their paths cross and they endure their ordeals.

“My crossroads is choosing whether to leave my wife behind and go for help,” says Maurice Turner of Thibedeaux.

By the end of the performance, it becomes clear that the survival of each of the characters “depends on their ability to work together,” O’Neal says.

It’s safe to say that this work of art would not have materialized if Hurricane Katrina’s 27-foot storm surge had not breached the levees. All the performers were affected at least indirectly by the storm. O’Neal counts himself lucky. His apartment is on the third floor of a building flooded with only 1 foot of water. The house that he’s renovating had some wind damage, but “the water didn’t come in.”

Like his character Thibedeaux, Turner lives in Mississippi, “on the outer edges” of the storm. “I have a lot of friends down there who were involved in it,” he says. But unlike his character, who drives down before the storm hits, Turner was unable to venture into the city until October.

Slie rode out the storm in Gramercy, Louisiana, where his mother works at a nonprofit hospital. The place turned into a hub of activity. Slie was able to help out there and in nearby shelters. He also got an early glimpse of the wreckage in New Orleans by “sneaking in with a fake press pass.”

Valentine Pierce was forced to leave her city, her home, and her job, not because her house got flooded, but because “my landlord lost her home and needed to move back into her property.”

Her biggest concern was for her mother, however, who refused to evacuate. “I thought she was dead,” says Pierce. “It took four days to find out she wasn’t.” She had been trapped in her house by water that reached her neighbor’s second-story porch. The same neighbor rescued her mother. But that was just the beginning of her mother’s trials.

“She and my older brother spent three days and two nights walking the Interstate,” Pierce says. They moved to Slidell, Louisiana, and Pierce relocated to Phoenix. Pierce just returned to New Orleans three months ago.

Kathy Randels’s parents were more fortunate, even though their home in Lakeview was inundated with 8 feet of water. The family was on vacation in Colorado when the storm hit. “My older brother is a school teacher. He was the only one here during the storm,” Randels says, and had to be airlifted to safety from the roof of his apartment building.

Aftermath complications proved more devastating for some than the storm itself. Pierce’s nephew and niece were killed in separate highway incidents in the months following the storm. And O’Neal’s property losses from looting and vandalism exceeded the damage from the storm itself.

If Katrina and its aftermath wields the biggest influence on the shape of this production, the scenes also hinge on the diverse talents of the performers themselves. O’Neal’s character, for example, doesn’t join in the dancing, and focuses instead on storytelling.

Pierce’s Miss Lily does “a little bit of the group dancing, and group singing,” but Pierce makes a more significant contribution to the piece as “a performance poet and writer.”

Turner is the musical director for the Uprooted project, and Thibedeaux plays the trumpet. The music, Turner says, ranges from hip-hop to different flavors of jazz, everything from “Mardi Gras music” to “spoken word in jazz” to “second-line music” (the raucous follow-up to a funeral dirge).

As Mama Nola, Randels, a vocalist, sings a jazzy “St. James Infirmary” and a hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” encapsulating the city’s dichotomy: raucous Saturday nights and penitent Sunday mornings.

While the performers each bring different artistic strengths to Uprooted, all are members of Atlanta-based Alternate Roots, a nonprofit supporter of the arts with an emphasis on social justice and community involvement. The collaboration germinated with the non-emergency portion of a $47,000 donation to Alternate Roots shortly after the storm, according to company manager Carlton Turner, Alternate Roots’ regional development director (and Maurice Turner’s brother).

Jump-Start Theater and the National Performance Network are co-commissioners of the project, and Jump-Start is helping with education and outreach, says Lisa Suárez, artistic director for guest artists. Uprooted cast members will be in San Antonio several days before the show and will conduct participatory story-circle workshops for local evacuees, including several families now living in the Artisan apartment complex at Salado Creek, Suárez says. The group is also scheduled to offer a free preview to Katrina evacuees on Thursday and company members will host a creativity-building workshop for local artists and musicians on Saturday.

Although portions of the Uprooted production have been performed by some of the company members in New Haven, Connecticut, Arden, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee, “everything up to this point has been a work in progress,” Turner says. “This will actually be the premiere of the work.”

Most of the performers had a hand in writing the narrative, under the guidance of O’Neal and Roscoe Reddix, the project’s director. But with a creative process inspired by New York’s free-form and activist Living Theater, the production is designed to evolve. Slie and  France, for example, thought it might be a good idea to swap character names, Seymour and Cane, two weeks before the performance, and so they did.

“It’s a very self-conscious creative process,” Reddix says. “We’re always asking ourselves, does this fulfill our mission and reflect our experience?” Although Reddix says he was “brought in after the initial collaboration,” when company members “realized there was a need for someone to help pull the various strands together,” the piece is still very much a communal effort.

As with any collaboration among people who care passionately about their art, however, conflicts are inevitable. “That’s always going to be an issue,” O’Neal says. “We said, ‘Everyone has a right to be different, and to hear each other despite those differences.’ And we made a rule: before we say ‘No,’ try to understand what the proposal is. Try it out, and see how it feels. That rule has served us very well.”

The ability to make the production happen despite their differences distinguishes the Uprooted performers from those acting on the national stage.

“It still feels like the federal government doesn’t want to do all in its power to save this place,” says Randels. That’s an ongoing source of immense frustration “to people who realize and understand the importance of this city to the country and the world — how much amazing culture developed here.”


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