'Godot' has flavor of New Orleans

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

"A country road. A tree. Evening."

That was all the scene-setting that Samuel Beckett provided in his classic tragi-comedy "Waiting for Godot." But in Beckett's conspicuous lack of stage direction, the Classical Theatre of Harlem saw opportunity for a statement-making production.

The company envisioned that tree and country road smack in the heart of New Orleans, a place where waiting -- for attention, for help -- was part of everyday existence long after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005.

"The Gulf Coast landscape was clearly part of the national consciousness at the time," director Christopher McElroen says of the production's genesis in 2006. "I saw a series of pictures that reminded me of the characters of the play. I saw two men floating down the street on a door. I saw trees coming out of the water. I saw Condoleezza Rice at Ferragamo [in New York]."

The production, which begins a three-day run at Prince George's Publick Playhouse on Friday, left the dialogue untouched, McElroen says. "It's straight-up Beckett."

Classical Theatre of Harlem's "Godot" premiered in New York with Estragon/Gogo and Vladimir/Didi as residents of New Orleans engaged in Beckett's fruitless, bleary-eyed waiting game. The five-week run nearly sold out.

Afterward, a call came from visual artist Paul Chan, who had been hoping to organize free performances of "Godot" in New Orleans for the stricken Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods. J Kyle Manzay and Wendell Pierce, actors from the New York run, joined Chan and McElroen in New Orleans for what turned out to be more than just a few shows: It became an eight-month project that included frequent trips south to meet with residents.

"We asked two simple questions," McElroen says of the interactions. "The first was, 'What are you waiting for?' and the second was, 'If we were to do this project, what else should we do to make it resonate within the community?' "

At the first of five performances, in November 2007, 500 seats were set up, a jazz band played and gumbo was served -- to all 1,500 people who showed up. The reviews were (and have been since) gushing.

"The New Orleans production put us in the mindset," says Manzay, who plays Gogo. "Being able to do it on the street, near the levee, with the people who experienced it -- it put you there.

"It gave all of us a degree of honesty."

These days, the play is on the road, bringing a piece of New Orleans to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and now Maryland. And it has evolved with every staging, McElroen says.

"It's gotten more optimistic," he says. "When we were in New Orleans, the thing that we kept hearing was, 'We're not waiting for anything. We know that Godot isn't coming.'

"And so instead of focusing on the fact that Godot doesn't show up," McElroen says, "we focus on the fact that these two characters, Didi and Gogo, arrive every single day. There's a tremendous amount of hope and optimism in that."

Waiting for Godot Prince George's Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301-277-1710. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m. $15-$20; $10 students, Friday only; $10 for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

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