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"Waiting for Godot" has come to New Orleans. A story of two men who wait for someone who never shows up is an apt metaphor for many residents still waiting for help two years after Hurricane Katrina and Rita.
Samuel Beckett set his 1952 masterpiece in a desolate unnamed landscape. This weekend and next, it will be staged for free in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward in Gentilly neighborhood.
Eve Troeh reports.
EVE TROEH: Actor Wendell Pierce, best known as Detective Bunk on HBO's "The Wire," has been in New Orleans for almost a month rehearsing his role as Vladimir.
(Soundbite of play, "Waiting for Godot")
Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): (As Vladimir) Let us not waste our time with idle discourse. Let us do something, while we have the chance. It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others might meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind, they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears. But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it while we have the chance.
TROEH: Pierce grew up in New Orleans. He was able to evacuate his parents before Katrina hit. New York artist Paul Chan visited New Orleans for the first time a year after the hurricane. Chan looked around at the devastated houses and people, and couldn't help but think of "Waiting for Godot."
Mr. PAUL CHAN (Artist, Producer, "Waiting for Godot"): The sense of waiting is legion here. People are waiting to come home, waiting for the levee board to okay the levees so they can start rebuilding again, waiting for honest construction crews who won't rip them off, and what people do while they wait, right? They banter jokes, they keep themselves busy and entertained, and it's a form of keeping hope alive, I think.
TROEH: Samuel Beckett's play has been performed at San Quentin Prison. In South Africa, "Godot" suggested waiting for the end of apartheid. Susan Sontag staged it in Sarajevo in 1993 in the midst of war.
Mr. CHAN: And so all these things conspired to put us within the lineage of imagining what it means to create art in places where we ought not to have any.
TROEH: Paul Chan needed partners to bring "Godot" to New Orleans. He approached The Classical Theater of Harlem where Chris McElroen directed his version of the play last spring.
Mr. CHRIS McELROEN (Director, "Waiting for Godot"): We didn't want to do another production of "Godot" with just a country road and a tree, and so we decided to flood the road and do it on top of a rooftop, and if people made the corollaries to New Orleans, then great.
TROEH: In New York, McElroen put the actors above a 15,000-gallon pool of water. In New Orleans no such symbolism was needed.
Paul Chan scouted locations, and that's how we met Robert Green. Green lives in a FEMA trailer near the Lower Ninth Ward levee breach, a huge American flag flies out front, an engraved headstones sits at its base. His 3-year-old granddaughter drowned in the flood. His mother died of exhaustion after swimming to escape. Green was skeptical of outsiders using his home as a stage set then he read the play and called Chan.
Mr. ROBERT GREEN (Resident, New Orleans): I got his answering phone. And I said, let's not waste time with idle discourse, which actually is a line from our play.
Mr. CHAN: He called me screaming into my cell phone, and I had no idea who it was. And then he waited five seconds and said, hi, Paul. This is Robert Green. And I think, at that point, I realized he was on board.
TROEH: Green introduced Chan around the neighborhood, helped him throw potlucks and get buy(ph) in from the community.
Mr. GREEN: How you all doing?
TROEH: His daughter's FEMA trailer is the play's dressing room, and Green hands out flyers to everyone who passes by.
Mr. GREEN: I hope you will pass it on because the idea is - it's called "Waiting for Godot," and as you see, it has a sign saying, waiting for FEMA, waiting for…
TROEH: The performance space is an intersection a block away - two sprawling live oaks frame the space where houses used to sit. Wendell Pierce says the sense of place is so strong that the location practically is the play.
Mr. PIERCE: We were rehearsing at the site, and a car pulled up and we had our (unintelligible) on. The guy rolled down his window and said, are you all the storytellers? We said, yeah, we're telling a story. And then the girl said, that's my house right there, which is now only a slab. And it was almost as if to remind us this is hallowed ground so tell your story but remember I live there. I just want to honor all those people who lost their lives.
TROEH: At performances this weekend and next, the theater company has reserved seats for President Bush, Governor Blanco, FEMA officials and others they called the Godots of New Orleans.
Robert Green says the people who've stayed in the city are Vladimir and Estragon.
Mr. GREEN: Godot made an appointment with them and they feel that if they leave, they're going to miss something. They have the right to be sitting there and waiting because, if you leave, you lose. If you give up, you lose. If you decide to come back tomorrow, tomorrow might not come.
TROEH: For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh.
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