“Lifting the Lower Ninth,” The Root, 6 March 2008.
Is it too soon to make Katrina into art?
Conventional wisdom teaches us that historical fiction takes a while. It’s a process, much like the stages of grief. A culture must wade through the shock, acceptance, recovery and reflection of a particular incident in order to draw insight from hindsight.
“Lower Ninth,” an original one-act torn right from the pages of recent history and now playing at the Flea Theater in New York City, patently ignores this presumption. The introductory details are cryptic: two men, we are told, Robinson Crusoe-ed by “a terrible storm,” will come to terms with their internal demons and their outward fate. The storm, of course, is Hurricane Katrina, and the drama, penned by 30-year-old Beau Willimon, is among the first crop of fictionalized accounts of the disaster.
Willimon says his inspiration came from an iconic 2005 cable news shot of two men waving from the roof of a home uprooted home in the wake of the storm. “I kept seeing this image looped over and over, of two guys on a roof, looking for help,” he says. He wondered, along with the millions of others suctioned to their television screens: How did they get there? What did they say to one another? Did they survive?
In “Lower Ninth,” Willimon adds only two objects to the television tableau—a Bible and a dead body—and allows the dialogue between the two principals – at turns funny, maudlin and fraught – to answer these questions. The result is a grounded portrait of ordinary black men in extraordinary circumstances—circumstances that lend themselves to both anger and redemption.
Three talented screen actors—James McDaniel of NYPD Blue, Gaius Charles of Friday Night Lights, and Gbenga Akinnabe of The Wire—animate the story on a spare, bleak set. Charles plays the young and restless Ezekiel, or E-Z, half-grown and half-hardened by the streets of the Ninth Ward. Separated from the high-tech idleness of today’s adolescence, he is reduced to the old fashioned–a drawn-out game of “20 Questions,” or counting shingles from atop the chimney of the rootless home.
McDaniel’s Malcolm is a prodigal stepfather, wizened by drug use and a hard road back to Jesus. The play opens with Malcolm’s prayer for Low-Boy (Akinnabe), a drowned friend dragged aboard the roof. After shuffling and groaning through Malcolm’s overzealous eulogy, E-Z asks, “Is that it? Ain’t there no more to the story?”
Both men try to close the chapter, but tragedy will not be ignored: Low-Boy rots beneath a ragged piece of plastic throughout (one memorable scene excepted), a tangible reminder of the void they seek to escape.
As the two men argue and converge, joke and despair, the matter of time becomes elusive. Their dirtied faces and clothes suggest a long trial; the moon-sized stage lights that mimic the sun’s burning path are evidence that the worst is yet to come. The house-raft floats on a black stage, emptied of other sights and voices—reinforcing the idea of an endless journey and a vanished New Orleans (miraculously, never once mentioned in the script.)
Of course, the memory of Katrina is too fresh to hastily disappear. Director Daniel Goldstein exploits this knowing communion between the audience and his performance; at one point he plunges the entire theater into prayerful darkness while Malcolm tells his stepson a folk version of the flood myth.
Throughout, Malcolm’s well-worn Bible proves a powerful anchor; Lower Ninth is rife with allusions to and uses for the book—from E-Z’s tearing of the cover to fan away the heat, to the Abrahamic sacrifice that marks the play’s climax.
This is not Willimon’s first foray into contemporary historical drama. “Farragut North,” a portrait of the machinations surrounding the 2004 presidential campaign, is headed for Broadway. But he doesn’t consider himself a documentarist. “I don’t write political plays that are dogmatic, or have a message,” he says. “It happened. My goal was not to ambulance-chase; it was just about letting something come out naturally.”
The attention will be welcomed. Two and a half years after Katrina inundated New Orleans and sent its poorest residents into anguished exile, crime in the city is still at a national high and infighting over scheduled redevelopment remains a disappointing political reality.
Others have joined the fight—from Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to movies like Déjà Vu, shot on location in New Orleans, to a version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot based on Katrina, the culture industry is repaying debts to the city that has produced decades of American art.
While the plot of “Lower Ninth” is at times banal—no more complex than E-Z’s search for a father figure—the universally-known backdrop also highlights the true import of the young boy’s biblical name. For when the prophet Ezekiel had his vision in the Valley of Dry Bones, it was a revelation about rebirth and resurrection from the dead.
And even though the Katrina dead were mostly victims of a sudden sea, the verse may best describe the hope for the future of New Orleans. “O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you will live.”