This past August, when we marked the sixth-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf coast, saw the publication of Katrina on Stage: Five Plays (Northwestern University Press), an anthology co-edited by Suzanne M. Trauth, professor in Montclair State’s Theatre and Dance department, and a former department colleague Lisa S. Brenner. Included in the anthology is Trauth’s and Brenner’s 2007 play, Katrina: the K Word.
Other works featured in the anthology include Rising Water (John Biguenet), The Breach (Catherine Filloux, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Joe Sutton), Because They Have No Words (Tim Maddock and Lotti Louise Pharriss), and The Trash Bag Tourist (Samuel Brett Williams).
Trauth said the five plays included in the anthology were chosen to represent all the various emotions and outcomes that resulted from the catastrophe.
“We wanted to include plays that personalized the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the powerlessness, devastation, and trauma, as well as the heroism and courage and wonderful spirit of the people of New Orleans,” Trauth said. “So, the five plays include stories about people on their roofs waiting for rescue that doesn’t come, animal rescue of family pets, the fate of displaced people, the timeline and events of the storm, and rumors about the source of the flooding in New Orleans.”
Although all five plays have the hurricane as a common backdrop, Trauth is quick to note that they are not all the same.
“Though each play tells its own story, it is clear that there was not one Katrina story, but thousands of Katrina stories — as many as the number of people affected,” she explained. “[T]hese are not stories of a single character, they are rich stories of character interaction and people’s experiences before, during, and after the storm.”
Included in the anthology is Trauth’s and Brenner’s 2007 play Katrina: the K Word, which the two wrote soon after Katrina hit the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines August 29, 2005.
“In the fall of 2006, in response to the devastation in New Orleans…Lisa Brenner approached me about co-writing a play about Hurricane Katrina,” recalled Trauth.
The two spent the next several months gathering information and a list of people to include in their work. Trauth said the two were referred to survivors by various sources including friends, family and colleagues. Then, they headed to New Orleans to interview survivors to “get the ‘real story,’ ” Trauth said.
“We ended up interviewing about 25 people,” Trauth said. “They ranged from musicians, to an actor, to a chef, to students and teachers, to utility administrators.
They, in turn, referred the playwrights to more subjects to include in their work. Several took Trauth and Brenner to where they could see the extensive devastation firsthand.
During the summer of 2007, the two transcribed the interviews and created a structure for the material.
“We researched New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, and its aftermath, and read Tom Piazza’s book, Why New Orleans Matters,” Trauth said. “We also read blogs that offered a variety of individual reactions to the storm, but the interviews formed the basis for the play and were the primary source for our material.”
Eventually, Katrina: the K Word featured 12 characters who represented the range of people affected by Hurricane Katrina.
“It hit the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor,” Trauth said. “We wanted the characters to represent New Orleans as broadly as possible.”
Katrina: the K Word was produced by the University’s Department of Theatre and Dance in the fall of 2007. Following that premiere, it has since been produced on college campuses in 12 states across the country plus Washington, D.C.
In the fall of 2008, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey produced a Katrina play festival of staged readings, in which Katrina: the K Word was invited to be read. It was then that the idea for the Katrina on Stage anthology was born.
“Following the readings of a number of plays, we decided to create an anthology of Katrina plays,” Trauth said. “We chose five plays out of a number of possibilities. The result is the anthology.”
Trauth said there were two main reasons for putting together Katrina on Stage.
“We began this project because we felt that the story of Katrina needed to be told,” she said. “Every person who was affected by the storm has his or her own version of what happened. I think we want readers to get a sense of the range of people affected. This anthology of five plays gives artistic expression to the devastation, particularly at the level of individual lives forever altered, and tells the kinds of stories the news media could not. It explores the deeply rooted problems plaguing New Orleans and illuminates many social, political, and environmental issues central to American life.”
The other, more far-reaching reason, is for the anthology to serve as a vehicle for change.
“Katrina on Stage documents an unprecedented time in American history; the full extent of the hurricane’s damage is incalculable and still being revealed,” she explained. “We want to keep Hurricane Katrina on the American radar, to continue to trigger discussion and activism and to have the plays serve as tools for great theatre, as well as social dialogue. Hurricane Katrina made a statement about America, about our strengths as well as our weaknesses.”
All royalties from sales of the Katrina on Stage: Five Plays anthology are being donated to The Porch 7th Ward Cultural Organization to help keep the arts and cultural life strong and vibrant in New Orleans and to support diverse, creative programming for all ages.
For more about Katrina: the K Word, visit www.katrinathekword.com. To order the Katrina on Stage: Five Plays anthology from Northwestern University Press, visit http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/ContactUs/OrderingInformation/tabid/77/Default.aspx.