It seems as though New Orleans, and the rest of the world, began assessing from Day 1 the changes Hurricane Katrina brought to the Crescent City.
“Brothers from the Bottom,” by New Orleans-born playwright Jackie Alexander, brings the debate to life.
Now onstage at the Lupin Theatre at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the play stars New Orleans’ own Wendell Pierce, who also co-produces the play’s local premiere.
Pierce performs the role of Chris, a dyed-in-the-wool neighborhood stalwart whose pride in his city and home are palpable.
Although we learn his mother was shot to death by a crack addict when Chris was just 11 years old, he cleaves to his home, especially the neighborhood he grew up in, with a fierce pride.
Not so for his brother, Trey, portrayed by Wendell Franklin.
As stage lights rise, Trey is walking up the steps of the shotgun double he and his wife, Lindsey (Megan Robinson), are “temporarily” sharing with Chris and his wife, Malika (Toccarra Cash), after a financial setback.
Trey left his family, his neighborhood and his native city behind when he went up north to college, and he never looked back.
Used to dealing with wealthy New Yorkers and having married a woman of mixed black and white heritage, Trey lets the audience know almost immediately how little connection (and possibly how much contempt) he feels for his former home.
He’s just in town, we learn, until he can swing a deal that will put him and his wife back on top financially and back into their New York apartment.
The rub is that the deal involves buying and tearing down homes near the new medical complex in order to develop market-rate condos. Chris, Malika and their neighborhood friend Lou (Kevin Mambo) want the neighborhood redeveloped by its residents, pitting them against Trey and his business partner, James (Thaddeus Daniels), who believes a rising tide will ultimately lift all boats.
As the arguments rage and tensions flare in the neighborhood, even Trey’s wife, Lindsey, comes to understand that the proposed project threatens to rob the neighborhood (and the city) of its soul.
Much of the play deals with the post-Katrina debate of revitalizing the city at the expense of its low- and moderate-income residents, especially renters displaced by redevelopment projects.
But themes of family and racial stereotypes also play leading roles and provide important emotional undertones.
Every actor in the six-character cast plays his or her role to perfection. Pierce demonstrates a complex understanding of New Orleans’ culture that made him so real (lovable and maddening at the same time) in the HBO Series Tremé.
Cash’s Malika feels like someone you have met before, and every neighborhood has a character like Mambo’s Lou.
Trey’s conflicted nature and troubled outlook are so successfully conveyed by Franklin that you wait anxiously for the other shoe to drop (as it inevitably does).
And Robinson’s Lindsey comes across as an insightful and caring person who “gets it,” even when her husband doesn’t.
Daniels plays the scheming James with equal parts oiliness and charm, characteristics New Orleanians have come to expect from developers.
“Brothers from the Bottom” is a don’t-miss opportunity for New Orleanians to experience live performances by terrific actors revolving around themes that that we will all be thinking and talking about leading up to the 10th year anniversary of Katrina in August.
I can’t think of a better way to engage one’s heart and mind in the dialogue. But hurry: The run ends June 28.