Friday, February 03, 2012

Lower Ninth

Ensemble’s LOWER NINTH gives a snapshot of New Orleans following Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. While the nation watched in horror, the event and the area were mainly ignored by then-President George Bush. When the President finally appeared on the scene, he praised the work of Mike Brown, his director of FEMA in spite of the ineptitude of the agency and their chaotic response.

The Lower Ninth Ward is the area within New Orleans downriver industrial canal, which is near the mouth of the Mississippi River. This area, mainly populated by African Americans, is still not rebuilt.

Beau Willimon’s LOWER NINTH gives a short glimpse of three men, two alive and one dead, who are stranded on the roof of a house following the storm. As the days and nights go past, a story is told of the relationships of these men. It also gives a glimpse of life before the catastrophe and maybe an insight into what is to come.

Willimon was the recipient of the Lila Acheson Wallace Julliard Playwriting Fellowship and the Lincoln Center Le Compte du Nuoy Award. He is best known for his play FARRAGUT NORTH which was adapted into the film THE IDES OF MARCH, which starred George Clooney.

LOWER NINTH is a she slice of life story which centers on Bible-quoting Malcolm, and E-Z, the son of the woman he lived with for many years. The duo are sweltering on a house roof waiting to be saved from the sea of contaminated water that surrounds them. Though their backgrounds are only hinted at, we gain a base understanding of each man. The connection seems to grow as they become more and more desperate. Also on the roof is Lowboy, a friend of E-Z’s, whose body was dragged out of the water in a failed attempt to save him.

The play, which is getting its area debut, does hold the viewers interest, but it is not extremely well developed. It is more a series of character studies rather than having a focused story with a beginning, middle and end. The themes are not clear, the motivations are only hinted at, and it is difficult to clearly state the play’s purpose.

Ensemble’s production, under the focused direction of Celeste Cosentino, is well paced, and the inclusion of visual images of clouds, sun and overcast skies, helps in building the tedious and sweltering mood of life on the roof. Steve Vasse-Hansell’s rooftop set gives a clear image of the isolation of the characters from the rest of the world.

William Clarence Marshall fully develops the role of Malcolm. He shows us a man who has found God, and transferred from a hinted-at history of abandoned accountability and social transgressions, to a person who has assumed his responsibilities.

E-Z, is a conflicted young soul, who appears to have had little male guidance and doesn’t really know who he is. He covers his insecurities with pseudo-macho mannerisms and ghetto language. J’Vaughn T. Briscoe fleshes out the role well.

Lowboy, was a drug dealer who had once saved E-Z from a school yard beating, thus earning life-long respect from the boy. Joseph Primes makes the most of a character whose motivations aren’t clearly etched.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LOWER NINTH gives the viewer an insight into life in New Orleans immediately following Katrina. Though it gets a good production at Ensemble, it isn’t a well developed piece of theatrical literature. It’s worth seeing to gain an understanding of a topic that has not been showcased on stage.