"The Breach" recalls what resident's of the Lower Ninth Ward endured after being trapped for days on a New Orleans rooftop, above the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina.
The man had a story to tell. And he told it to playwright Joe Sutton, one of three authors of the new play “The Breach.”
This resident of the Lower Ninth Ward recalled being trapped for two days on a New Orleans rooftop, above the rising floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. From there he could see other rooftops in the distance. On one, what looked like several family members were huddled together.
One minute he saw them. But the next time he looked, they were gone.
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Gone? Gone where? Drowned? Rescued? The man never found out.
That tragically ambiguous memory became part of the three-stranded narrative of “The Breach,” a long-brewing play by Sutton, Catherine Filloux and Tarell McCraney about Katrina’s impact on New Orleans — and its import for America at large.
The play premiered last year in the eye of the storm: at Southern Rep in New Orleans. Now the revised two-hour drama is set to open in a new production at Seattle Rep, directed by Rep head David Esbjornson with a cast that includes Michele Shay (from the Rep’s “Gem of the Ocean”) and Seattle actors John Aylward and William Hall Jr.
Warmly received in Ryan Rilette’s initial staging at Southern Rep, “The Breach” is drawing national interest.
Drawn to disaster
That’s no surprise: America has long been fascinated by dramas about cataclysmic events. Quips Esbjornson, “Theater people tend to be disaster junkies.”
He has a point. In the late 19th century, the curious flocked to elaborate Broadway stage melodramas depicting storms and train wrecks. And Hollywood has had a long history of profiting from harrowingly detailed disaster flicks about such calamities as earthquakes, asteroids and shipwrecks.
Yet Sutton, who initiated “The Breach,” wants to avoid clichés of the disaster genre.
“The vast majority of our script is not taking place during the deluge, in the howling winds,” explains the writer, a New Yorker who has had other plays premiered in Seattle (“Voir Dire” at the Rep, “The Red Badge of Courage” at Seattle Children’s Theatre).
“A great deal of our piece is set in the aftermath of the storm. I think some issues are better addressed when the dust clears — two years after the disaster, not two months later.”
Says Esbjornson, “This is not about reliving the hurricane. It’s about trying to get some perspective on the tragedy, see it in political terms, and create something positive from what we’ve learned.”
Instead of a bill of three one-acts, or a standard docudrama, “The Breach” is a freely fictionalized work, which bends theatrical time and space to tell several distinct stories. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans described it as a “rich” drama “that plays out movingly, mysteriously and humorously.”
“The play switches back and forth between symbolism and realism,” says Esbjornson. “The writers wrote three storylines and found interesting ways to integrate and overlap them.”
Yet while Sutton wants “The Breach” to succeed as art, he also hopes it sparks discourse about “our own responsibility, as a society, for what happened in New Orleans.”
Of course, stage and film artists have been reflecting on the Katrina debacle since it occurred. Spike Lee made a powerful film documentary on the subject, “When the Levees Broke.” The storm has also inspired such plays as Master P’s hip-hop gospel comedy, “Uncle Willy’s Family,” and numerous feature films.
In 2007, Classical Theatre of Harlem grabbed headlines by staging Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in a storm-gutted house in New Orleans’ hard-hit Gentilly District.
Refining through research
“The Breach” had a lengthy, unique path to fruition.
Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, after raging up the Gulf Coast. The storm then submerged 80 percent of the Big Easy in up to 15 feet of water — mainly due to breaks in the levees erected to protect the city from flooding. As local, state and federal governments failed to evacuate many of the poorest, most-vulnerable citizens, the world watched horrifying, 24/7 TV coverage of a U.S. city plunged into chaos.
Sutton watched those wrenching images of patients trapped in hospitals; of drowned bodies floating in murky water (Katrina’s death toll was at least 1,600); of thousands forced to take shelter in the filthy, crime-ridden Superdome; and of politicians passing the buck — all the way to the White House.
What can a play say, then, that wasn’t already communicated in that barrage of images? A lot, insists Sutton.
“You can argue that plays are more central to the cultural conversation in England than America,” he says. “But I’m a theater artist, and I don’t want to cede the ground. I believe theater is an important part of our democracy.”
Soon after the floodwaters receded, Sutton made the first of many research trips to New Orleans. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and other sources, he tapped Filloux as a collaborator.
Filloux has explored the effects of genocide and injustice in such previous plays as “Eyes of the Heart,” about the psychosomatic blindness of witnesses to a Cambodian massacre. For this project, she was interested in the manifestations of post-traumatic stress on Katrina victims.
“In trauma, the past, present and future are merged in a way that really tricks up your mind,” she suggests. “It’s not just your physical reality that’s affected. The trauma can go on for generations.”
The playwrights hooked up with community groups to meet and interview Katrina survivors. “There’s no way to understand what happened if you didn’t go there, and see the scope of the destruction,” Filloux reports. “It was the most apocalyptic sight I’d ever seen, with trees crashed into cars and wrapped around houses.
“As we talked with and listened to people, we refined the play’s premise. We decided our main theme would be that Katrina was a man-made disaster, more than a natural one.”
“Extreme, everyday heroism”
Alongside glaring evidence of negligence and governmental indifference over the condition of the levees, the inadequacy of evacuation plans and post-hurricane reconstruction efforts, Filloux was struck “by the extreme heroism of everyday people.”
“We talked to this man, an ex-junkie, in his FEMA trailer. He told us that during the storm he literally died while stranded on a roof, until a total stranger resuscitated him.”
To round out the writing team, Filloux and Sutton later recruited McCraney, a young dramatist who was no stranger to calamity. As a kid in Florida, he lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which destroyed his family’s home. Though still in grad school at Yale University, McCraney “eagerly said yes” to the invitation to work on “The Breach.”
For him, the play is “a story about the human condition in dire straits.”
And did his being a black man from the South help break the ice with New Orleans residents the team interviewed? McCraney’s not sure it made any difference. “I know the people in New Orleans were polite to me and Joe and Cat, but they were also in a lot of pain and could be reluctant to trust any outsiders, regardless of color.”
Water, water everywhere
Gradually, however, each writer had enough material to develop a distinct storyline to blend into “The Breach.”
“My story is about a man with MS who has to swim out of his house to survive,” says Filloux. “It’s about his struggle with water, which I’ve written about in a poetic, symbolic way.”
“Water is a main character in the piece,” adds director Esbjornson, who hints his set design for the Rep show includes areas of water. “Because of the nature of the tragedy, I didn’t want water to be romantic but dangerous, frightening — kind of an abyss.”
Sutton says his plotline is about “a reporter who goes down to the region because he’s heard a rumor the levees were intentionally blown up. We also heard that a lot in New Orleans. The reporter’s mission is to investigate that, but also to consider the notion of rumors in general.”
In the third narrative, fashioned by McCraney, we meet three people awaiting rescue: a little girl, her older brother and their grandfather.
These characters are fictional. But it was Sutton’s interview with the man who’d seen a family on a rooftop, then lost sight of them, forever, that moved McCraney to tears and inspired him to imagine such an ordeal.
“That was the bedrock,” he says, “the foundation of my portion of the piece.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com