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Making art out of Hurricane Katrina's suffering

Ten years after the disaster in New Orleans, true stories of survival fill a pair of Chicago productions.

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Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!

Evidently King Lear had what it takes to write op-eds for the Chicago Tribune. In these lines from the third act of Shakespeare's tragedy, the mad monarch sounds a little like Kristen McQueary, who went into full raging-on-the-heath mode a couple weeks back in a Trib column begging the heavens to reduce Chicago to rubble so that it could be rebuilt like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The only storm McQueary got, though, was a shitstorm on the Internet, where she was widely condemned for a lack of sensitivity in discussing a disaster that resulted in more than 1,800 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. In lieu of issuing a nonapology, McQueary issued a nonclarification, saying that she was merely using "metaphor and hyperbole" to make a point about the urgent need for political and economic reforms in Chicago.

Setting aside the question of whether the New Orleans recovery—a mixed bag of bold political moves, rapid gentrification, and an economy that still skews toward low-paying jobs for many—is the best template to follow, the McQueary controversy offers a useful cautionary tale about the dangers of using a real-life catastrophe as a rhetorical device. Generally speaking, people tend to get touchy when the worst days of their lives are futzed around with for someone else's narrative purposes.

That's worth remembering not only if you're a pundit but also if you're a photographer, novelist, filmmaker, or dramatist. For New Orleans playwright/tour guide/man-about-town Rob Florence, whose Katrina: Mother-in-Law of 'Em All is one of two plays about the storm and its aftermath receiving local productions to mark the tenth anniversary of the events, it all boils down to empathy and accuracy. A documentary-theater piece taken from interviews with actual survivors, the play (which has appeared in various drafts, under various titles, since 2006) comes out of a time, Florence says, "when people were coming from outside the region, shoving tape recorders in people's faces, and asking them about their experience." These new arrivals were "well-meaning," he says, "but the way the city would come across was devastated and tragic and defeated."

You can see what he means in the Katrina-related work of some photographers, who almost fetishized scenes of Old Testament destruction, reinforcing the conventional myth of New Orleans as a swampy hothouse of rot and ruin. Then there were representations like David Simon's curiously listless Treme on HBO, which, except for its music scenes, felt preachy, self-conscious, and self-serious, like spending time with a jazz snob who knows a lot and feels little.

Florence found that the stories he was hearing from actual survivors were a lot less depressing. Some tales contained unimaginable suffering, but ultimately each one "was about strength and was funny as hell." He'd hear flashes of startling eloquence too, as when one African-American man drew a parallel between the 19th-century slaves who were only allowed to congregate in Congo Square and the residents who were herded into the Superdome after Katrina. Eventually Florence began conducting interviews, and they became the text of his play, in which six survivors of the storm gather in the Mother-in-Law Lounge—a New Orleans landmark founded by late singer Ernie K-Doe, whose widow (now also deceased) is a character in the play—to talk about their experiences.

Interrobang Theatre Project coartistic director and Louisiana native Georgette Verdin appeared in one of Florence's earlier drafts while they were both working on MFAs at the University of New Orleans (the character she played has since been cut). Now Verdin is staging the work's first Chicago production. The script's use of real people's real words, she says, helps it escape charges that Florence, who is white, is coopting the experiences of a majority-black population.

"We only hear from the residents," she says. "Rob was meticulous about preserving their stories and the way they told them"—run-on sentences, flawed grammar, puzzling analogies, and all. "It builds credibility," says Verdin. "It's clear that these are different voices, not a mouthpiece for the playwright. Rob just got out of the way."

Boo Killebrew's The Play About My Dad, which is receiving a production at Raven Theatre in October, also incorporates multiple accounts of Katrina's impact and aftereffects. But Killebrew, a Mississippi native now based in New York, decided that the only way she could write effectively about the disaster was to get in the way, not out of it.

She was inspired to write down the survival stories related by her father, a doctor who camped out at a gulf-coast hospital for months helping flood victims. "But something about it felt Lifetime-movie-esque and exploitative," she says. "I felt like I was using these people's survival for my own artistic purposes." It was only when she began mixing the strangers' narratives with an account of her own strained dealings with her dad that the piece started to feel honest. She and her father both became characters in the play.

"The more I wrote," she says, "I realized I have to get vulnerable too and put myself on the line. It felt scary, so I knew that was the way to go. It was like, Aw, damn it, this is terrifying. Now I have to do it."

She's aware that it's a delicate balance. "My relationship with my father set against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina—I know there's no comparison. And I certainly hope I don't make it seem like I'm the hero of this thing. I see it like I'm a playwright telling this story and I'm going to be as honest as I can be about that." Putting herself in the play is meant to acknowledge her distinct and unavoidably limited perspective, as well as the difficulty of depicting a cataclysm like this in all its multitudes of facets.

Marti Lyons, who's directing the show for Raven, still thinks it's worth a try—provided the effort is made with humility and empathy. In her recent work, including Title and Deed at Lookingglass Theatre Company and Bethany at the Gift Theatre, Lyons has shown an affinity for stories about individuals pushed to the brink by forces beyond their control and then forgotten. She considers it a duty of art to remind us of the lost and displaced.

"Remember that movie Magnolia?" she says. "There's a moment where it zooms in on the corner of a painting by the girl who was abused by her celebrity father. We see the words 'But it did happen.' I think about that when it comes to retelling stories that have slipped from our national consciousness. The power of narrative to increase the staying power of an event is something we as storytellers should take very seriously."  v

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