This weekend, Esty and I tried to go see Waiting for Godot in New Orleans—a modern day adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s internationally renowned play. (For non-readers, Waiting for Guffman, was Christopher Guest’s spoof on the original: a play hinging upon the arrival of a man who never arrives). What better place for this production than the Ninth Ward of New Orleans? Beckett’s original begins with a country road, a tree, and evening. The Ninth Ward is pretty much composed of empty roads, trees, and a pervading sense that it is always evening. Even on sunny days when I have been across the industrial canal in the wash of debris, wreckage, and small areas of rebuilding, the neighborhood is gray and all too quiet-- like day has ended there for good. So I love the idea of staging Waiting for Godot in a fitting landscape. The play, highly publicized and free to the public, ended up being full to capacity when we arrived a half an hour early. Unfortunately, I cannot attest to the skill of the actors or the relevance of the adaptation to a city that has been waiting for FEMA, for new schools, for national recognition as a place that shouldn't just go to the dogs or the sea. I'm sure the play exuded both talent and wit.
What I can attest to is the general sense that too many of us who approach art and indulge in it are operating on an unspoken possession of privilege. As Esty and I left the blocks-long line of play-goers, we had to explain what was going on to passers-by who still live in the Ninth Ward. The clustered headlights of cars going into a deserted neighborhood, the eerie beacon of of spotlights in a forgotten field, the lack of parking spots on a street that has been neglected for over two years, was puzzling to the group of men drinking beer in the Chicken Box ( "Tastes Like Yo Mama's" ) parking lot next to our car. They had no idea what was going on.
"It's a play," we explained.
"Ain't no stage over there."
"It's in an abandoned house."
"You crazy. What kinda play is in an abandoned house in the Ninth Ward?"
How do you answer this question? How do we make art, literature, performance accessible to its own subjects? If futility and irony were arm wrestling Saturday night, I don't know who would win. We stood on the median between long streams of mostly luxury cars, explaining to the scattered Ninth Ward residents driving by that there's a play about them, taking place in what could possibly be their own house, and the audience is too full of people who probably didn't lose anything for the Ninth Ward residents themselves to go in and see it.
As we climbed back into our SUV and skirted our way around the drinkers in the dark parking lot, I couldn't help noticing that this laughing, rowdy, Saturday-night smiling group of men weren't waiting for anything. Maybe this is the art, this is the vivacity that needs to be merged with the mindsets of those who scurried back to their cars, locked their doors, and left without an exchange of real words and real worlds.