Maya Horton is 14, the same age of the leading character she plays in UpStage Theatre’s one-night production of Jason Tremblay’s drama, “Katrina: The Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back.”
Curtains open at 6:30 p.m., Friday, Aug. 28, in the McKinley Middle Magnet School auditorium for this 10th anniversary commemoration of Hurricane Katrina.
And playing someone the same age should come easily to Horton, but there’s a chronology problem.
When Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans, Horton was only 4.
“Some of my fondest memories are when my church, Calvary Third Baptist Church, sheltered over 300 people after the hurricane,” the McKinley High School freshman says. “I remember seeing all of these kids and making all of these friends, but I really didn’t understand what was happening.”
Her perception has changed with this play.
“I look back and I can only fathom what those kids went through,” she says. “I have a cousin who’s 15 from New Orleans who went through this. I didn’t know her before, and I wonder if I would have ever known her if it hadn’t been for the hurricane.”
But Horton also realizes that her cousin’s family lost everything in the storm.
“I started thinking about it, and if my house caught fire, I would lose everything,” she says. “They lost everything, and it’s why I take this role so seriously. I’m the main character — the narrator — and I’m going to tell their story.”
It’s a story that begins with floodwaters rising in young Katrina’s neighborhood. Her dad, played by Antoine Pierce, puts his daughter in charge of getting her aunt and neighbor to safety.
Both are elderly and in wheelchairs.
“He tells her to bring them to Preservation Hall,” says Ava Brewster-Turner, UpStage’s artistic director. “She brings them there. She meets some other characters along the way.”
The first is a ghost who calls himself Stale Bread.
“He’s really the Angel of Death, but he doesn’t tell them who he’s there to collect,” Turner says. “He does take someone by the end of the play, but I won’t say who it is.”
She also won’t reveal the identity of the faceless woman Katrina encounters after delivering her charges to Preservation Hall, but she does offer some insight.
“The faceless woman helps Katrina reclaim her name,” Turner says. “Katrina believes that, because her name is the same as the storm’s, people will think she had something to do with the storm’s coming to New Orleans. She’s only a young teenager, and kids sometimes think things like this.”
Katrina’s worries are sidelined at times by her Aunt Beulah and the neighbor, Mr. Thibeaux.
“Thibeaux is ornery, and he and Katrina are at odds a lot of the time,” says Alexander Scott, who plays the neighbor. “He’s a challenge for her, and she learns to deal with him on the way to Preservation Hall.”
But the teen’s story doesn’t end at the French Quarter jazz hall. Katrina is determined to find her way back to her father.
“Her mother is dead, so he’s her only immediate family,” Pierce says. “Her father is also trying to find her. Having a son close to Katrina’s age, I can identify with what Katrina’s dad is feeling. I think about the things I would do if I was separated from my son in a situation like this, and I would be doing everything I could to find him.”
The storm and its aftermath change all the characters in Tremblay’s story. He wrote it while working on his master’s degree at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. Tremblay grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but cultivated friendships in New Orleans through frequent visits.
“Katrina: the Girl Who Wanted Her Name Back,” has since been performed in Chicago; Orlando, Florida and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as one of seven plays selected as part of the 2008 New Visions/New Voices festival.
“UpStage Theatre’s performance will mark the Louisiana premiere for this play,” Turner says. “It’s not only a Louisiana premiere, but a southern regional premiere, and it’s happening here.”
UpStage also sponsored a Hurricane Katrina poster contest, and the winning design will be featured in the production’s Playbill. All entries will be on display in the auditorium’s lobby.
“The audience will be able to watch as Katrina grows from a child to a young adult in this play,” Horton says. “This experience makes her grow up and see life in a different way, and it’s important to me to tell her story.”