Cut from the same cloth as “The Laramie Project” and other interview-based stage docu-dramas, Ellen Gavin’s “Stardust and Empty Wagons” assembles testimony from displaced New Orleans residents. Their tales of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, difficult personal flights and our government’s failure to properly rebuild sport the inevitable power of real-life disaster reportage. But thus far, Gavin hasn’t shaped her research into an effective dramatic arc. The raggedly performed “Starlight” might enjoy a regional afterlife if such rough edges are smoothed.
Ten performers play a total of 14 people, including two (Amber McZeal, Linda Rose McCoy) appearing as themselves. On a bare stage littered with a few packing crates and backed by a projection screen, they start out relating personal and family histories growing up in “the most Africanized city in the U.S.” The burg’s significance as an erstwhile slavery port, hub of French culture, birthplace of jazz, et al., is duly noted.
The anecdotes are entertaining and the personalities — running the gamut from former Mr. Universe Charles Hawkins (L. Peter Callender) to 105-year-old Lavinia Strong Lundy (Velina Brown) — engaging.
But there’s a certain shapelessness to this material, exacerbated at the performance reviewed by halting rhythms, dropped lines and the overpowering live contribution of N.O.’s nine-piece Hot 8 Brass Band, in sloppy form. The band’s volume is such that the actors yelled in vain to be heard whenever speech and music overlapped. (Hot 8 only appeared opening week, so later shows with prerecorded music might well achieve a better sound mix.)
Some narrative momentum snaps into place once the testimonies turn to the hurricane itself: Those who evacuated the city and those who refused, or waited too long; days spent by the latter stranded on rooftops as bodies floated by; good and bad behavior by desperate citizens; incredulousness as rescuers fail to materialize.
The shorter second act simply picks up from where the first leaves off, with further accounts of hardship in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath. Most of these particular survivors fared relatively well, a majority finding acceptable new homes in Northern California. But all lament that what they had expected to be a temporary exile from New Orleans now looks permanent; a “disaster apartheid” has effectively ensured that the still painfully hobbled city will never fully regain its racial and cultural character.
Daniel Gamberg’s rear projections, encompassing family photos, historical images and news footage, do a good job filling out the larger context behind personal stories. But what’s onstage below seems in need of more rehearsal to smooth the back-and-forth between performers.
Those who are double-cast — Brown, Callender and Elizabeth Summers — create sharp character sketches that are a cut above the sometimes wobbly turns by others. While the info she cites is valuable, actual temp FEMA inspector McCoy is somewhat awkwardly used here as the only non-resident and white person; while other performers generally remain onstage throughout, she keeps trundling on and off, as though she’s not quite welcome in the play itself.