With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up this weekend, thousands of New Orleanians will be telling and retelling their stories of survival and the aftermath.
A stage production, opening Friday night at the Joy Theater, will recount six of those stories.
“Katrina: Mother-in-Law of ’Em All,” written and directed by Rob Florence and produced by Jonathan Mares, is the latest incarnation in a succession of plays Florence has conceived since 2006 centering around the Katrina theme.
This version is set in the Mother-in-Law Lounge in Treme and is told through the eyes of six Katrina survivors in a round-robin fashion. Four of the people are played by actors; the other two by the individuals themselves.
The characters being portrayed are the late Antoinette K-Doe (played by Troi Bechet), owner of the lounge after the passing of her husband, Ernie K-Doe in 2001; Sylvester “Hawk” Francis, curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum (Zeb Hollins); Arthur Raymond Smith (Troy Poplous); and Jenny Lynn Waters (Janet Shea). Haunted History Tours owner/operator Sidney Smith and Rudy Rasmussen play themselves.
“Each of the six actors has one principal role, but they all play secondary roles in the other narratives,” Florence explained.
“I’ve been listening to Katrina stories over the last 10 years and every once in a while I hear a story of people overcoming adversity that’s so remarkable. And sometimes there was humor in them. That’s really the surprising element of these stories,” Florence said.
Cited as an example was the story behind the evacuation of Rasmussen and his late mother, renowned local music educator Ione Rasmussen.
“Rudy wanted to evacuate but she resisted at first,” Florence said. Elderly and on a walker, “she said she wouldn’t be comfortable on a long car ride. So, as he’s pushing her into a Chinook helicopter, he asks, ‘Are you comfortable now, Mama?’ ”
But one of the key factors motivating Florence to create the progression of Katrina-related plays was how the story was being spun outside New Orleans.
“I was tired of the way this experience was getting portrayed nationally, particularly in the media, and by artists who would come in and try to convey it,” Florence said. “They were focusing on all the misery and devastation and all this bad behavior. But there were also thousands of instances of exemplary human conduct. Strangers helping total strangers. All kinds of acts of self-sacrifice and kindness. I just don’t think that story got out well enough.”
Citing the old newspaper adage, “If it bleeds it leads,” Florence countered it with a quote from the New York Post review of an earlier version of his play that ran in New York in 2010. The review called the play “surprisingly uplifting.”
“I like that quote because it doesn’t sugar-coat and it doesn’t spin,” Florence said. “There’s stuff in there that’s very disturbing because how could it not be? But hopefully, by the curtain call, you feel better. That’s true for me because Katrina, as bad as it was, in the end made me feel better about the people of New Orleans.”
Shea, a veteran actor who has been in two of this play’s predecessors, is portraying Jenny Lynn Waters, whose story came to Florence’s attention because of her refusal to evacuate and leave her two pet ferrets behind.
Since taking on the role, Shea and her character “have gotten to be great friends,” she said. “She’s a delightful lady, very sweet and genteel. We’re about the same size and she gave me some of her outfits. I’m wearing one of them in the show.
“I love playing a person with the loving, giving, uplifting spirit and all the optimism that Jenny Lynn has. I’m having a good time playing her,” Shea added.
A preshow titled “1927 Flood: Songs My Father Taught Me,” will be performed by accordionist/vocalist Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes. The theater’s lobby will also host Tom Neff’s photography exhibit, “Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina.”
Show times are Friday, Aug. 28, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 29, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Ticket prices are $25-$35. Call (504) 208-1180 or go to www.thejoytheater.com.