The world as they knew it came to an end for many residents of New Orleans and the surrounding communities on Aug. 29th, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Big Easy. That terrifying Category 5 storm, with winds of 155 mph and above and a tidal surge in excess of 18 feet, breached 53 New Orleans levees and submerged about 80 percent of the city. Katrina left 1,836 dead and 705 missing in the Gulf Coast States — but nearly 1,600 of the dead called Louisiana home — and estimates of total property damage are $81 billion or more. (By contrast, Hurricane Fran hit the North Carolina coast — and later roared through the Triangle — on Sept. 5, 1996, with winds of about 115 mph and gusts up to 125 mph when the hurricane made landfall. Fran caused 24 deaths in this state, and did approximately $2.3 billion in damages to N.C. homes and businesses.)
Uprooted: The Katrina Project, which The Carolina Theatre of Durham, NC presented Sept. 28th and 29th in Fletcher Hall, vividly chronicles the biggest and baddest natural disaster in United States history from the perspective of 10 actors, dancers, performance artists, and musicians who looked at what one of them called “That Bitch Katrina” in the face and lived to tell their tales of survival on stages across the nation in a touring multimedia show produced by Alternate ROOTS, in collaboration with Holden & Arts Associates, and directed with brio Roscoe Redix, Jr., with formidable creative assists from technical director and lighting designer Sean LaRocca and sound designer Maurice Turner.
The energetic ensemble lovingly limns the indomitable spirit of a cross-section of New Orleans residents who alternately spat in the eye of the storm or hunkered down and held on for fear life. African-American actor and civil-rights activist John O’Neal and white actress and educator Kathy Randels personified the beat-up but not beaten, bloody but unbowed attitude of many who endured Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath. Actor and singer William O’Neal gave eloquent voice in song and the spoken word to the survivors’ anger and sorrow, jazz trumpet player and actor Maurice Turner turned the tragedy into haunting blues and jazz riffs, dancer and choreographer Millicent M. Johnnie became a veritable human dynamo as she channeled her anger and frustrations into sometimes frenetic dance routines, and actor and public relations practitioner Bruce France added a dash of humor to Uprooted with his caustic comments on the monumentally inadequate governmental response to the storm. France also donned a 20-gallon hat to parody the alleged obliviousness of President George W. Bush to the plight of Katrina’s shellshocked survivors.
Poet and performance artist Valentine Pierce; choreographer and educator Stephanie McKee; poet, singer/songwriter, and performance artist Saddi Khali; and actor and director Nick Slie also created a bevy of unforgettable characters wandering the sodden streets of the Big Easy in the wake of the Storm of the Century, desperately trying to locate loved ones, and attempting to salvage what they could of their storm-damaged homes and possessions.
All in all, Uprooted is a powerful production with a marvelous multiracial cast. It puts the Diaspora of Katrina refugees into perspective, as well as entertains with a scathing satire of FEMA red tape (with Stephanie McKee delightful as a decidedly unfriendly and unhelpful federal bureaucrat) and a video lampooning the television reporters’ overheated coverage of the storm. But, perhaps, the most vivid images of the evening were John O’Neal’s lifting of his umbrella in salute to Nola’s scattered sons and daughters and Kathy Randels’ ribald comments as an aging but unapologetic mother-hen of a madam whose girls and their johns are gone God knows where, and will be back God knows when — or, maybe, never.
The Carolina Theatre: http://www.carolinatheatre.org/onstage/ [inactive 3/10]. Uprooted: The Katrina Project: http://www.alternateroots.org/uprooted.asp [inactive 6/09]. Hurricane Katrina Relief (via Alternate ROOTS): http://www.alternateroots.org/katrina.asp [inactive 6/09].