At The Den Theatre, Chicago
A Feel-Good Docudrama That Captures the Resilient Spirit of Survival
Ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast and devastated New Orleans, and while many of us have been inundated with its coverage—from the talking heads of politicians and television journalists—perhaps few of us have gotten to hear personal accounts of its survivors. Rob Florence’s Katrina: Mother-In-Law of ‘Em All takes this personal approach, cutting through the politics and media sensationalism to capture and preserve a kind of oral tradition of human survival and triumph in the face of overwhelming, natural adversity.
In this play, the audience is invited into New Orleans’s famous pub, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, at which a musician and six locals are gathered. In this “timeless” space (it is neither day nor night, but merely now in some unspoken, metaphysical sense), these hurricane survivors take turns recounting portions of their journeys with surprisingly good-cheer and enthusiasm—sometimes punctuated with sorrow or outrage, but always followed-through with hope and understanding. Throughout the individual accounts, certain encounters are acted out, sometimes with musical accompaniment, with one of the others standing in for a character in the speaker’s story, creating a strong sense of bond among these locals. When the dramatic round of stories all come to their respective close and the stage lights dim, the audience is left with a sense of having encountered real people, welcoming friends, whom they might bump into someday if they ever happen to stop by for a drink or a laugh.
Katrina is not your standard theatrical play, but is more of a docudrama, using its theatrical framing to stage true, personal accounts of an historical event. There is some humor and some drama, but there is no character development, no discernable turning point, and no real dramatic conclusion. Perhaps the clearest way of imagining this play would be to think of sitting down with a close relative or friend and having them tell you an amazing story from their life, with the conclusion leaving you feeling good about it all.
Nevertheless, what Katrina does, it does well. While the alternation of the storytelling can get a bit confusing and mentally exhausting at times (it can be another twenty minutes before you hear the next part of a particular story), the manner of storytelling is quite engaging thanks to the clever directing and scenic design and the impressively realistic acting.
Greg Pinsoneault created the set so that the ceiling of the Mother-in-Law Lounge literally hangs from the ceiling of the theatre space, offering the audience a window into the pub, with its jukebox and walls adorned memorabilia. Georgette Verdin’s direction utilizes this set by having the actors directly address the audience during their stories. Additionally, Chris Owens’ projections allow the audience to be drawn further into the characters’ stories by means of the shocking, real images from New Orleans during the time of Katrina.
However, what does the most to capture your attention and draw you into the storytelling is the acting. RjW Mays and Danon Dastague, as Antionette and Judy, respectively, create two characters so real you will swear you’ve met them before. And the other actors’ performances are also impressive and do well to create a very real sense of having stepped into the midst of an old group of friends.
Overall, while not your standard theatrical fare, Katrina aims more toward the mature audience (i.e. children would probably lose interest) and provides a feel-good docudrama with vivid characters and a welcoming and ultimately hopeful spirit worth the price of admission.
Produced by Interrobang Theatre Project. Playing at The Den Theatre Mainstage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $20, with $15 Students/Seniors tickets, and $10 industry tickets on Thursdays and Sundays.