Final play in Katrina trilogy explores struggle of rebuilding
A decimat ed city, a couple and a moldering house are the elements of a new Katrina drama, “Mold,” which explores love in three emotional forms: ancestral, domicile and matrimonial.
The play is the third installment of the “Rising Water” trilogy of storm stories by John Biguenet. “Mold” is set to open Wednesday as a Southern Rep production at the Contemporary Arts Center.
“I wanted to look at the human drama (of Katrina) after having reported the facts. I wanted to do something for New Orleans,” Biguenet said. He wrote a series of columns for The New York Times in 2006, chronicling the restoration of New Orleans, post-Katrina.
But Biguenet struggled to tell the story of memory, loss and survival through a literary architecture.
“I couldn’t find a narrative structure in American literature to discuss the destruction of an entire city,” he said.
“Mold” captures the dilemma of a young couple trying to decide whether to rebuild a family home or start over somewhere else. The setting is a house that hasn’t been opened since the floodwaters overtopped the city’s levee system. It is the husband’s childhood home; his parents died in the attic. The wife wants to get away from the horror and start over in her hometown in Texas to take advantage of a thriving economy and an intact infrastructure. The husband wants to stay in New Orleans, even though the site is slated for demolition.
“The architecture of the city (post-Katrina) was like a house completely molded over, collapsing in on itself, with the city anxious to bowl it over, and with the insurance companies unwilling to provide the money we needed to rebuild, so people were in a desperate situation,” Biguenet said.
He describes “Mold” and the other parts of the trilogy as being “like a wake where family members get around the kitchen table after a funeral to talk about your grief and sense of loss.”
“Rising Water” and “Shotgun,” the other two parts of the trilogy, were staged earlier in March in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, respectively.
Biguenet wanted to capture the efforts of the city’s political structure to divide the city along racial lines, describing the time as “worse than when I was child during the days when segregation was in power.”
Yet, Biguenet says, New Orleanians have a common sense of history.
“If given the opportunity to talk to one another as human beings, there’s a lot of humanity in the city,” he said. “There are no good guys and bad guys in these plays; it’s just people who have suffered a great deal trying to do their best. Every single person in the city was involved whether your house got destroyed or not.”
Biguenet proudest of the fact that audience members told him that he “got it right” in both “Rising Water” and “Shotgun” — capturing the nuances of the city’s specific language, cultural heritage and attitudes. Each production had extended post-performance talk-back sessions, some of which went on for hours.
“No one wanted to leave,” Biguenet said. “They would just tell their own stories about what had happened.”
He described instances when his coat sleeve was wet when he returned home after hugging weeping patrons following “Rising Water” shows, which debuted only 18 months after the storm. He also said that it was difficult for him to watch the production.
He would stay in the lobby until he heard applause at the show’s end and then would re-enter the theater for discussions.
“But a stage is no place for political opinions…what one wants to see are human beings in the midst of change of some kind. A decision to put their lives in balance somehow,” Biguenet said.
He notes that all three plays are love stories, but laments that the storm caused the dissolution of so many relationships.
“It’s like a piece of crystal that has a flaw in it and no one notices the flaw, but if you apply just the right amount of pressure, the thing shatters into a million pieces. That’s what happened here,” he said. “The pressure of life here was too great after the levee break — Road Home, the insurance companies, no help from the federal government — but the couples who survived the experience are like one person now.”
Biguenet said he doesn’t believe that the story of Katrina will be completely told for many years. He thinks that “20 years from now, people will talk about this with whoever will listen.”
Karen Celestan is a writer, cultural administrator and educator living in New Orleans. She can be reached at Karen@mosaicliterary.com.