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Deconstructing Katrina

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Through a trilogy of plays, author John Biguenet looks back at what the hurricane wrought

John Biguenet is one of the city’s most lauded writers. Throughout his career, the Loyola professor has won awards and acclaim for his novels, stories and plays.art

He can trace his roots to eighteenth-century New Orleans, so he is integrally connected to this city. After Hurricane Katrina temporarily forced him and his wife out of their Lakeview home, Biguenet became an impassioned and eloquent chronicler of New Orleans’ unique challenges, beginning with his stirring New York Times blog (biguenet.blogs.nytimes.com/2005/10/03). He is now writing a trilogy of plays about post-Katrina New Orleans. The first, Rising Water, received national praise, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize nomination and a 2007 Big Easy Theatre Award among other honors. The next play, Shotgun, which will premiere at Southern Rep, has already been attracting attention through its regional readings.

What made you decide to write the trilogy?

Rising Water came out of one of my blog entries called “How They Died.” I couldn’t understand from my experiences with hurricanes, going back to Betsy in the 1960s, when I was a child, how a hurricane could kill that many people. At that time, the Army Corps of Engineers continued to maintain that the water simply overtopped the levees. . . . The more I interviewed people and the more I found out what their experiences were like, the more I realized it had nothing to do with the hurricane. People who got trapped got trapped hours and hours after the hurricane had passed. So Rising Water was imagining what it was like to have dodged the bullet of the hurricane only to wake up at two in the morning the next morning with water as deep as your mattress.

After I wrote Shotgun, I realized that really was just the beginning of the story for us in New Orleans. It was unimaginable, what it was like here [in the months after the storm]. I thought, “That’s a story that needs to be told as well.” The play is set four months after the flood, December 2005 until about May 2006. I talk about what it’s like for the survivors to try to piece their lives back together again.

You have said you had to work through your anger about the storm while writing early drafts of Rising Water.

In the early drafts, Rising Water was a two-act play. I killed off both my characters in the first act. The director asked me, “What am I supposed to do with the rest of the show?” Eventually I got to the point where they made it to the end of the play. But, yeah, the more I learned about what had actually happened here versus what I’d been told on the television, the angrier I got. It took me ten or twelve drafts to get myself off the stage and leave room for the two characters.

In both plays the personal and racial relationships and the sense of loss if anything are amplified because of everything people are going through.

 Shotgun is a story about relationships and race in the United States, and loss. As one character says, “Well look at us, we’re white and black living here under one roof in this house.” But another one answers, “Yeah, but with a wall running between us.” The circumstances simply press in upon the characters in a way that force a lot of things to a head. Very much the same things happen in Rising Water, where a couple that had been living together for thirty years, because of the crisis of the moment-the water is coming up those attic steps, and they’re not sure they’re going to escape it-they finally bring up issues that they’ve not been able to talk about for three decades. And I think the same thing happened in the city. In that first year after the flood, the city was forced to address things it had turned a blind eye to-poverty, wretched education, crime.

How did locals react to Rising Water?

 When we did Rising Water in New Orleans, people wouldn’t leave the theater. We had talkbacks after almost every performance because people wanted to stay there and talk about what had happened to them. People needed a chance to share. I always began these discussions by saying, “We had like four feet in the house. I lost my entire office and 2,500 books, and my wife and I feel really lucky compared to most people.” We lost every recipe from all our years together. All my study, all my writing. Notes for my next three books. And we literally feel very, very lucky compared to a lot of people. We’re able to live here. A lot of people can’t.

Can you compare the reactions between local and national audiences?

 It’s always the same: “We had no idea what happened in New Orleans.” They had no idea about the levees, no idea what the Corps of Engineers did here. They think what happened in New Orleans was exactly the same as what happened in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. We had on the one hand a terrible natural disaster that happened on August 29, 2005, and simultaneously probably the biggest man-made disaster in the history of the country. Because they happened on the same day, people didn’t cover one as well as the other. So very few people in the rest of the country understand what happened in New Orleans.

At staged readings, people have been shocked by what the play tells them. They can’t believe that is what New Orleans was like just four months later. And I can tell them that the statistics indicate how little progress we’ve made since then. They’re left just flabbergasted, because the story hasn’t gotten out.

Though characters in Shotgun express a lot of the despair and anger you describe, they also have the sense that they can create a better New Orleans.

 Shotgun is right in between the catastrophe and what’s to come. There’s still some glimmers of hope. One of the characters mentions, you’d never guess that these people would have so much grit. But things are going to get worse in the third play.

What else should people know about Shotgun?

 I think what a play properly can do is raise questions that the community needs to address. It would be presumptuous for the play to try to answer those questions. I hope Shotgun becomes a forum in which we raise questions about being a human being-not just about what happens when you suffer a catastrophe and endure loss, but also about the community. Race is a shorthand for a lot of other things, income disparity and housing and medical care. I keep telling people that New Orleans is where the future arrived first. We’re talking about issues of relevance to the entire country.