Who knew the submerged houses of New Orleans would be so artistically inspiring? Two years ago, Classical Theater of Harlem staged “Waiting for Godot” in a pool of water, with an all-black cast stranded on a rooftop, and the suggestion of Hurricane Katrina proved Samuel Beckett’s play could illuminate a contemporary crisis. And now, conversely, Beau Willimon’s play, “Lower Ninth,” proves the specifics of Katrina can be expanded into metaphors.
Like the earlier “Godot,” “Lower Ninth” places black men on the roof of a flooded house, and once again, they’re waiting. Unlike Estragon and Vladimir, however, Willimon’s characters aren’t waiting for anything in particular. They just sit there, baking in the sun, knowing their world has shrunk to 30 feet of shingles.
The production eerily portends doom. Instead of literal water, set designer Donyale Werle surrounds the rooftop with black flooring, like an encroaching void. Costumer Heather Dunbar dresses the characters — teenager E-Z (Gaius Charles) and middle-aged Malcolm (James McDaniel) — in soiled clothes, like they’ve been stranded for weeks. And in one audacious scene, Willimon plunges us into several minutes of darkness. We hear Malcolm recite a Bible story, and it’s like the sound of last rites.
Then there’s the corpse. Wrapped in trash bags, we’re told it’s the body of E-Z’s friend Lowboy (Gbenga Akinnagbe), and it just lies there. No matter what kind of small talk they make, the living can’t erase the silent, persistent symbol downstage.
Few modern plays are so completely theatrical. Even in silence, the show feels alive, because Willimon and the creative team offer more than just dialogue and psychological conflict. They create a miniature universe in which every detail throbs with meaning.
And the meaning evolves. After creating such powerful bleakness — and a statement on what happens to the poor in a disaster — the show introduces an alternative. E-Z has a dream in which Lowboy rises from the ground and says Malcolm, who saved his Bible from the storm, can walk on water.
But that doesn’t mean Malcolm is Jesus. The writing is never so simple, and the religious imagery is more magical than strictly Christian. It gives power to a desperate kind of hope.
By the moving conclusion, which can be read as either joyous or futile, we are offered another way to think about the darkness.
The thesps’ energized performances keep the metaphors grounded. With his shoulders stooped and his palms on his thighs, Charles makes E-Z an awkward kid struggling to act like a gangster, yet we keep seeing loneliness on his face. McDaniel plays Malcolm as a man who has accepted his own feelings. His persistent, unapologetic affection for E-Z — the son of his former girlfriend — makes his eventual sacrifices heartbreaking.
By shaping small details, like the careful way Malcolm touches his Bible, director Daniel Goldstein creates a specific, relatable base for the play’s larger themes.
He also helps justify the attention that has surrounded Willimon since last year, when word leaked that his play “Farragut North” was Broadway bound. Now the scribe has a significant achievement to accompany his buzz.