This isn’t the newest of news, but when I came across it, I found it to be important…
In early November, there was a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. I’m a Beckett fan – actually an absurdist fan – so any mention of a Beckett play catches my eye. This, however, was not your run-of-the-mill local playhouse presentation of two guys on stage sitting on a rock under a tree.
For starters, this production starred New Orleans native Wendell Pierce of The Wire fame (fyi: Laura and I are totally addicted to The Wire – in fact, I think Laura has a crush on Omar). But what sent this production over the top was it being shown in two of the hardest hit areas of post-Katrina New Orleans. One was set in front of an abandoned home in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, and the other at the vacant intersection of two previously vibrant streets in the Lower Ninth Ward. The concept of "waiting" could not be any more important than to the citizens whose lives were wrecked by Hurricane Katrina. Plus, the concepts of "absurdist" and "tragicomedy" fit in beautifully to how our federal government has handled the situation.
I think we can all remember President Bush standing proudly in front of the Disneyfied Jackson Square confidently proclaiming that he will "help the citizens of the Gulf Coast to overcome this disaster, put their lives back together, and rebuild their communities." Bush also promised to "restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and [to] rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created." Bush even went so far as to declare that the "work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." Eloquent words from his speech writers.
That was 29 months ago. Two years and five months. Anyone who has laid eyes on many of the destroyed New Orleans neighborhoods can see not much has happened but a slow drying out.
Just 10 days ago, Bush gave his State of the Union address. Other than announcing "that in April we will host this year's North American Summit of Canada, Mexico, and the United States in the great city of New Orleans," Bush made no mention of the status of the government’s efforts to rebuild New Orleans or the Gulf Coast (and in his 2007 State of the Union address, Bush made absolutely no mention of New Orleans). Although the importance of the recovery of New Orleans appeared paramount to this man 29 months ago, it’s obvious why he could make no report in his State of the Union speech... because he hasn’t fulfilled his promise! Nice work George.
Back to the play… The New Orleans presentation of Waiting for Godot follows other versions staged in politically charged environments: In the 1950s and 1980s, prisoners at San Quentin performed the play. In South Africa in 1976, Godot suggested waiting for the end of apartheid. And, Susan Sontag staged it in Sarajevo in 1993, in the midst of war.
For the New Orleans production, artist Paul Chan, known for many politically charged productions, created the play’s adaptation to fit the modern day New Orleans scene. Here there were four free site-specific outdoor evening performances of Godot. A fifth performance was added due to the overwhelming response – hundreds of people were turned away each night.
According to Chan, "The longing for the new is a reminder of what is worth renewing. Seeing Godot embedded in the very fabric of the landscape of New Orleans was my way of re-imagining the empty roads, the debris, and, above all, the bleak silence as more than the expression of mere collapse. There is a terrible symmetry between the reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for tomorrow."
"The sense of waiting is legion here," Chan said. "People are waiting to come home. Waiting for the levee board to OK them to rebuild. Waiting for Road Home money. Waiting for honest construction crews that won't rip them off. Waiting for phone and electric companies."
It’s been a while since I have read the play, but, as I remember, so many lines reverberate with post-Katrina meaning: "where are all these corpses from?"; "there's no lack of void"; "things have changed here since yesterday"; "do you not recognize the place? Recognize? What is there to recognize!"
However, as reported by many, the soul of Chan’s Godot wasn’t in Vladimir’s despairing cry at being marooned in nothingness, but in something he says later in the play: "Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let’s do something, while we have the chance! It’s not every day that we are needed. Let us make the most of it before it is too late!"
"That," said Wendell Pierce, "was the truest sense of community. It's what art is all about. What thoughts are to the individual is what art is to the community."
Well put, Wendell.