But isn’t this play rather pessimistic, I’ve been asked. Meaning, wasn’t it depressing for an audience in Sarajevo; meaning, wasn’t it pretentious or insensitive to stage Godot there?… The condescending, philistine question makes me realize that those who ask it don’t understand at all what it’s like in Sarajevo now, any more than they really care about literature and theatre.
–Susan Sontag, “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo”
Signs on corrugated plastic–A Country Road/A Tree/Evening–had been fixed to wooden telephone polls all over town with roofing nails and zip ties. Who knew what the hell they meant, or even noticed them next to the Clarkson for City Council, Roof Repair and other political and commercial signs that litter our neutral grounds and cityscape in postdiluvial New Orleans? But as it turns out, those first signs, looking every bit as much the disposable junk as the others, were genuine contemporary art, made by Paul Chan, a New York art star. They gave notice to the city, however obliquely, using the opening stage directions of the play–Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot–that he was to stage on two consecutive weekends in two of the most devastated neighborhoods in America.
The ambiguity of the signs did not inhibit a packed house for each of the five nights the play was performed for free in New Orleans. Indeed, it was only planned for four nights–two in the Lower Ninth Ward and two in Gentilly. But Chan, the Classical Theater of Harlem–which staged the play here and in New York–and Creative Time, a New York nonprofit dedicated to public art, which produced and funded the visionary endeavor, added a fifth night after turning back hundreds of people from the performances in the abandoned Lower Ninth Ward.
After the lucky few hundred folks who made it in the first night ate gumbo and were then drawn to bleachers a couple of blocks away by a brass band and dancers from The Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a de rigueur homage to the city’s vernacular culture, people took their seats. The stage, an abandoned intersection, was in the midst of several wasted city blocks where aggressive local flora had begun reclaiming the neighborhood as a backswamp, now that bulldozers had cleared most of the homes destroyed following Hurricane Katrina. The play was framed in the distance, like the curtain at the back of a stage, against a newly built concrete flood wall, whose earlier incarnations–in 2005 during Katrina and in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy–had failed to keep the water at bay.
The Rev. Charles Duplessis introduced the premiere and invoked the lost lives specific to this “charming spot” on “this bitch of an earth,” as Beckett’s characters later said. “Where you are sitting is where someone’s home was…. People lost their lives right in this area,” Duplessis explained with great solemnity, clearing the air momentarily of the joyful music that still rang in our ears.
And then the familiar, repetitive, morally ambiguous play began. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, talking, waiting for Godot, trying to pass the time, despairing. Pozzo and Lucky appearing, then disappearing. The boy coming to tell the tramps that Godot would not be coming today, “but surely tomorrow.” Roughly the same thing occurring in the second act.
The play is dark, written after the world spiraled into uncontrolled horror and barbarity by an Irishman who saw it up close. But it is also a comedy in the modern sense–funny like slapstick.
Wendell Pierce, a Gentilly native and TV star from HBO’s The Wire, played Vladimir, admirably emphasizing the vaudevillian elements of the play and riffing on Louis Armstrong, another native son, and “Li’l Liza Jane,” an important song in the New Orleans jazz repertory. T. Ryder Smith was arresting as brutal Pozzo. Everything else, from the other actors to dynamic staging to the bare sets in the morally charged landscapes, worked well. But ultimately, it was the audience–residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, people from across a city whose every block was marked by the storm–that night after night made this performance great because of their special sensitivity to “tragicomedy,” the designation Beckett gave the play.
While certainly not only in New Orleans, it is clear that especially in New Orleans we are able to understand and embrace life’s absurdity, how we all wait for good or bad, how terribly uncertain our futures are, but then we are immediately able to belly-laugh at Estragon’s stinking feet or Pozzo’s sudden blindness or, worst of all, the tramps’ horror at having to wait another day and their contemplation of suicide while Estragon’s pants sit at his ankles.
The audiences in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, like the audience in Sarajevo during the siege of that city, or the audience at San Quentin prison, where this play was staged in 1957, or most any other audience, I expect, did not laugh at these misfortunes with any derision or condescension but with empathy. Here in New Orleans, though, our identification with the humor in the play was slightly sharper, arising not just from the storm and its bitter aftermath but from more than a century of local culture built around the proposition that you need to laugh, sing, eat–find joy wherever you can–to keep from crying.
And like the characters of the play, we are too aware of our folly. We ask ourselves why we do the things we do. Primarily, why do we live here? Our friends and neighbors were left to die in the storm’s rising water. Now they are being murdered at alarming rates in our streets. Even now, more than two years after the storm, many more things are worse than are better. And given the lack of political vision in the present, the horrors of the past–the flood, the despair, the poverty–will no doubt persist or repeat themselves.
But unlike any other city in America, those of us who are here now have chosen to be here. We were forced to leave, and we returned. And we stand at a barren crossroads, beside dark oaks and magnolias, at the twilight of the life of our city, and we rebuild our shotgun homes, our double galleries and our slab tract houses in Gentilly, New Orleans East, Central City, Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward. We wait for leadership and genuine assistance to keep us from flooding again, to give meaning to the promises that we relied upon. But we no longer expect it to come, and we know that our work may all come undone. It likely will. But, like Vladimir and Estragon, we will keep coming back. Because this is what we do. This is who we are.