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.