These stories got enough in ’em to speak for themselves,” says one of the characters in “Swimming Upstream,” a series of moving monologues by and about the women of New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you’ve got dynamic women doing the speaking. This is not a play but a variation on a staged reading, but “series of monologues” does not do justice to the show’s cumulative affect. In many ways the work resembles an engaging church event — complete with gospel songs, testimonies and hand-clapping redemption.
The show was originally produced in April as a one-time event at New Orleans’ Superdome that was part of the 10th anniversary celebration of V-Day — the org spearheaded by “The Vagina Monologues” author Eve Ensler to end violence against women. It’s now premiering in a full legit run at director Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater in Atlanta, with a lineup of high-profile actresses including Phylicia Rashad, Shirley Knight and Jasmine Guy. (Kerry Washington steps in for the final week when Rashad exits for a previous commitment.)
The stories, singing and the show’s powerful sense of humanity mark the collaborative work — there is no single author or editor credited, though Ensler’s crafting is evident — and make it attractive for all sorts of other venues, formats and incarnations, a la “The Vagina Monologues.”
Seven women, accompanied by three singers, tell what happened before, during and after Katrina. A flood of emotions is let loose as the tales are told, from snippets to longer narratives. Anger, shock, grief, humor and gratitude are shared with the aud and each other as the women relay their experiences and distaff perspectives — disbelief of the approaching disaster, the chaos surrounding the flooding, the staggering failure of the government to help, what they faced when it was over and their own forecast for the future.
The specificity and authenticity of the tales give the work its power and poetry. (“Those of us who didn’t fly, walked on water”; “At the center of a kiss, New Orleans sits.”)
It’s hard to imagine a more stellar group of women thesps, gracefully helmed by Leon on his Peachtree home turf.
“I don’t know when I lost my Katrina look,” wonders a relocated woman played with heartfelt vulnerability and resilience by Knight. (“That’s ‘Ms. Evacuee’ to you,” she says when she’s referred to as a refugee.) Guy’s cool fierceness is stunning in a solo about the need to dance when prayer fails. Asali Njeri DeVan is a natural scene stealer as a woman raging against bureaucracy, exploitation and indifference; her comic asides are hilarious. (“Wal-Mart closing? I didn’t even think they had a key.”)
Most touching is Rashad’s quietly told tale about the shooting of her grandchild and her confrontation with the now-imprisoned killer. (“Still don’t know what it is make their hearts so hard; they ain’t got nothin’ less than we had. Do they?”)
The piece suffers somewhat from the inherent problems of any collaboration without a stronger editing hand. Some pieces lack focus and sharpness; others tread water in their own murky words. While some of the characters are vividly and indelibly drawn, others are vague, lost in their sense of personal but unconnecting poetry.
But the memorable voice of experience is what gives the show its distinction and what echoes after it ends, when the waters recede and the sun finally and gloriously comes out.