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The “Levee” Before Katrina A play with music sheds poetic light on America’s forgotten past

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seems slightly more terrible if we remember that just eighty years earlier, the Gulf Coast endured a similar disaster.

During the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the river swallowed cities from Oklahoma to Arkansas. Levees broke in dozens of places, and Louisiana officials even attempted to divert water from New Orleans by dynamiting a levee that protected poor neighborhoods.

And then, late in the crisis, thousands of African-Americans were stranded for days on a levee near Greenville, Mississippi. They lived without food or clean water while boats rescued white women and children.

To those who remember what happened in 2005, these details will sound chillingly familiar. However, they may also come as a surprise. Though it once gripped the nation, the Great Flood has been largely forgotten.

“If we had remembered, would Katrina have happened again?” asks playwright Marcus Gardley. “It really begs the question, ‘If we learn the lessons of history, can they keep us from repeating ourselves?’”

Gardley began tackling these questions after he was approached by the director Lear DeBessonet. Once she learned about the Great Flood herself, DeBessonet felt compelled to address it, so she contacted Gardley, composer-lyricist Todd Almond, and the artist Kara Walker to see if they would create a piece of theatre with her.

The team produced On the Levee, a play with music that imagines the citizens of Greenville before, during, and after the flood. (Walker, who’s best known for her racially charged, cut-paper silhouettes, created original work that will be incorporated into the production.) 

Now playing at Lincoln Center, the show takes enormous liberties with history, genre, and theatrical style. Though many of its characters and situations are based on actual events, it also pulses with imagination, so that people speak in poems, songs burst out of speeches, and movement and music sometimes replace words altogether.

The creative team swears by this approach. “I’m not interested in documentary theatre,” says Gardley. “I’m interested in taking historical moments and pairing them with heightened language and music, and questions that the people must have asked.”

Almond adds, “I think Marcus and I are both big Romantics. We’re not going to write a stark, ‘here’s the world in black and white’ kind of piece. We put a lot of big-hearted emotion into what we write.”

As they worked, Almond and Gardley developed a closely collaborative style. “My job is to react to Marcus’ work,” Almond says. “Sometimes my job is to inject even more capital-R Romantic moments into the proceedings, and sometimes my job is to stick in a song that sounds like the period. We bounce off of each other.”

For Gardley, working in a non-literal style means paying deep tribute to the past. “If we were just using documents or just telling stories that were recorded, then you wouldn’t have the whole story,” he says. For instance, he notes that no one documented the African-American community’s response to what happened in Greenville.

He wants his script to fill in some of those blanks. For instance, he imagines the inner life of Greenville resident James Gooden, who was famously shot in the back by a white policeman for refusing to work grueling hours in a post-flood maintenance crew.

By inventing and poeticizing the past, Gardley hopes he can make us acknowledge our cultural blind spots. “The language, the music, they really emphasize the scope of the event,” he says. “It’s important to use the theatre and the tools of the theatre to get at the weight of the event, those core truths that are in the details.”

Asked if there’s anything he would like an audience to ask themselves as they leave On the Levee, he replies, “I hope they ask what I’ve been asking: ‘How could we have forgotten something so big?’”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor