Nov. 5 may have been either the most or the least opportune night for the Atlanta premiere of True Colors Theatre Company's Swimming Upstream, a star-studded evening of stories, songs and spoken-word poetry about Hurricane Katrina and the women of New Orleans.
Everyone in the 14th Street Playhouse seemed charged with excitement over the previous night's election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. True Colors artistic director Kenny Leon and his collaborator, Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, both mentioned the election, which even made Ensler tear up during her curtain speech. Despite the thrill over the prospect of the new White House, Swimming Upstream demanded a shift in gears to revisit arguably the current administration's lowest moment.
Developed in partnership with New Orleans' Ashé Cultural Arts Center and Ensler's V-Day movement opposed to violence against women, Swimming Upstream presents the experiences and emotions of women who lived through the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Four of the script's 16 writers make up the 11-woman performance ensemble. The most famous cast members include Phylicia Rashad (frequent actress in Kenny Leon's productions, including the Raisin in the Sun TV movie), Jasmine Guy (of "A Different World") and Oscar nominee Shirley Knight (probably best known for As Good As It Gets). Film actress Kerry Washington wasn't around for the show's first week, and Rashad will be absent for its second.
The play evokes images of one of America's oldest and most beautiful cities reduced to squalor, but the production's slick glamour works against the content. The storytelling women all dress in black, the three singers (Leslie Blackshear Smith, Willa Bost, Michaela Harrison) all wear white, and everyone dons the same pink scarf. The performers sit on stools in line, with their scripts on music stands and a star field effect in the backdrop. The overall effect more resembles a self-congratulatory awards ceremony than the raw, poetic exploration of the Katrina experience Swimming Upstream achieves in its best moments.
Swimming Upstream assumes its audience is familiar with the particulars of the Katrina disaster, so it doesn't resort to hurricane-related exposition or political name-checking along the lines of "Brownie, you've done a heckuva job." Instead it focuses on telling street-level details, such as a shopper's realization of the disaster's magnitude when Wal-Mart closes: "Wal-Mart? Closing? I didn't think they even had a key!" Evacuees list the meager belongings they took, like lingerie, a resume, the new Harry Potter book, or "a pair of flip-flops that would be my only shoes for months." Despite the anger and sorrow inherent in the material, Swimming Upstream includes plenty of humor, and Knight's delivery, matter-of-fact in the face of catastrophe, gets some of the biggest laughs.
The script unfolds as a kind of collage of voices, so we get the briefest snapshots of women, rather than getting to know then as individuals. Of the marquee-named performers, Jasmine Guy (or maybe her fans) gets short-changed, with seemingly the briefest moments in the spotlight. Guy shines in a charming vignette about a woman's inability to pray during her post-Katrina depression. She sings and exuberantly dances as the character renews her spirit through praise songs, but it's like watching the highlight reel from a longer, more substantial piece.
Swimming Upstream explicitly takes place before, during and after the flood. Members of the cast shout "Bang!" in turn when the levees break, and, later, collectively wave at a helicopter that fails to help them. The "After the Flood" sections provide the show's most powerful moments as the New Orleans residents try to return and rebuild. Women express outrage at irresponsible builders, judgmental social workers, callous bureaucrats and even the liquor store owners who seem unhindered by the disaster. Katrina becomes both a metaphor for and an exaggeration of social ills that always plagued New Orleans and America's inner cities.
Rashad brings enormous dignity to a sequence about an older woman whose teenage "grandbaby" is senselessly gunned down, and who visits the equally young perpetrator in a futile attempt to find an explanation for the violence. Singer Troi Bechet delivers a blistering spoken-word piece about the constant threat of gun violence in the city. The performance takes an odd turn when various women fantasize what they'd do "If I had a gun," muddying the rage and empowerment themes.
In an evening fueled by star power, two of the most impressive, lesser known talents hail from New Orleans. Bechet serves as the evening's principle singer and has both a heavenly singing voice and a force-of-nature stage presence. It's hard to imagine a hurricane having the nerve to flood a city where she lives. Pregnant Asali Njeri DeVan delivers some of the most engaging and earthy stories and at times all but explodes with righteous indignation.
At such times, Swimming Upstream channels authentic feelings about the city into affecting public performances. The more abstract beat poetry interludes don't always pay off, and at times the production awkwardly segues between the spoken content and the lovely (if clichéd) musical interludes. In its most powerful moments, Swimming Upstream uses Katrina to face some daunting social issues and the kind of civic challenges that won't go away after elections end or the floodwaters recede.
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