Category Archives: government

Harvey versus Katrina and the urgent timeliness of powerful new play ‘Runaway Home’

At left, flood waters in East New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. At right, the Meyerland area of Houston on Monday. 

As the catastrophic toll of Hurricane Harvey continues to rise with the flooding water, memories of Katrina in 2005 surge into mind like a torrent bursting through a shattered levee. And once again, like with our recent world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s politcal drama Building the Wall, the Fountain Theatre finds itself launching a new play dramatizing an urgent national issue torn from today’s headlines.

Our world premiere of Runaway Home by Jeremy J. Kamps reveals the powerful struggle and courage of the New Orleans community three years after Hurricane Katrina.  Opening September 16th, the new play couldn’t be more timely.

“Unfortunately, the tragedy of Hurricane Harvey makes the issues raised in Runaway Home even more relelvant,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “The Fountain always aims to create new work that illuminates the social and political concerns of our current times. With Runaway Home, we now have the opportunity for a new play to shed light and offer the need for civic humanity in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.”

As the New York Times outlined, Hurricane Harvey evokes comparisons to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Here’s a quick rundown of what we know about similarities and differences between the two.

The Cities

Katrina: Before the storm, New Orleans — with its distinctive Creole-Acadian-French-Haitian-Vietnamese cultural mélange — was a small city of about 455,000 people that lay in large part below sea level, ostensibly protected by a system of levee walls. Its population never fully recovered from the evacuation and destruction and remains below 400,000.

Harvey: Houston is a sprawling, car-dependent, diverse city, low-lying but not below sea level. It has a population of more than two million people, with a system of bayous and waterways to manage flooding.

At left, the flooded streets of New Orleans two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005. At right, the flooded streets of Houston on Sunday.

The Storms

Katrina: It made landfall near the Louisiana/Mississippi border on Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3 storm and measured 350 miles across. However, the relatively low classification, based on wind speed, was deceptive because Katrina produced the highest storm surge ever recorded in the United States.

Harvey: It made landfall in Rockport, Tex., on Friday as a Category 4 storm, measuring 200 miles across, but was quickly downgraded. As of Monday, it was expected to linger for days, causing the National Weather Service to warn, “This event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown.”

Deaths and Damage

Katrina: One of the deadliest hurricanes ever to strike the United States, Katrina was responsible for 1,833 deaths, and some bodies were untouched for days. The storm inflicted more than $100 billion in damage, with most of it caused by wind, storm surge and the failure of the levees. Katrina also left three million people across the region without power.

Harvey: Local officials have reported at least 10 deaths in Texas since the storm began, and the number could rise. Heavy rains and flooding are expected to continue at least through Friday, and most of the damage could be caused by flooding.

As for the economy, the Gulf region’s capacity as an oil and gas hub — Houston accounted for 2.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2015 — does not appear to have been seriously compromised, and economists were predicting that the storm’s cost would be less than half that of Katrina’s. So far in Texas, there are 300,000 people without power.

Rainfall

Katrina: Rain was not the main problem with Katrina, which yielded 5 to 10 inches of rainfall in a 48-hour period.

Harvey: By contrast, Harvey brought a deluge, with up to 50 inches of rain predicted over the next several days — more than Houston receives in a year.

At left, emergency personnel workers rescuing people in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. At right, workers rescuing people in Houston on Sunday.

Evacuation

Katrina: The mandatory evacuation of New Orleans was announced a day before the storm hit. An estimated 100,000 people remained stuck in the city. A few weeks later, in another chaotic evacuation, more than 100 people died leaving the Houston area to escape Hurricane Rita.

Harvey: Houston did not call on residents to evacuate and is now urging those who can to shelter in place. However, as the rain continued on Monday, a growing number of other jurisdictions — like Bay City, which expected 10 feet of water downtown — urged residents to leave.

Assistance

Katrina: The storm displaced over a million people and damaged or destroyed 275,000 homes. Almost a million households received individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Harvey: We don’t know yet how many people will be forced out of their homes. But the vast majority of homes in Harvey’s path are not insured against flooding, according to figures from the National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA officials estimated that 450,000 people were likely to seek federal aid.

The Takeaways So Far

Katrina: Evacuation chaos and mostly unfounded panic over riots and violence made issues of race, poverty and government failures impossible to ignore. The breaches of the levees compounded those problems and represented an engineering failure of grave proportions.

Harvey: Harvey will likely sharpen an ongoing debate over whether Houston, a city driven by real estate, has overbuilt at the expense of flood control. While Katrina showed a failure to build well, Harvey — depending on how it plays out — might come to represent a warning about climate change.

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Next at the Fountain: Powerful world premiere ‘Runaway Home’ is a poetic mother-daughter tale set in New Orleans

RUNAWAY HOME title image

Sometimes what you’re searching for is right where you started. The Fountain Theatre presents a powerful, funny and deeply moving mother-daughter story by Jeremy J. Kamps. Multiple award-winning Shirley Jo Finney returns to the Fountain to direct the world premiere of Runaway Home for a Sept. 16 opening.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina, the unhealed wounds of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward continue to fester. Camille Spirlin (ABC’s American Koko, Fox TV’s Rosewood, Nickelodeon’s Marvin Marvin) stars as 14-year-old runaway Kali. Rhyming, stealing and scamming her way through the still-destroyed neighborhood, she embarks on a journey to pick through the wreckage of what used to be her life. While the rest of the country’s attention drifts, the neighborhood’s residents are left to repair the damage from the inside out. As their attempts at renewal leave a path of destruction in their wake, Kali bears witness to what the floodwaters left behind. Also in the cast are Leith Burke (Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain,Neighbors at the Matrix), Jeris Lee Poindexter (The Darker Face of the Earth, Central Avenue, Gem of the Ocean at the Fountain),Armando Rey (Men on the Verge of a His-panic Breakdown at Macha Theatre), Maya Lynne Robinson (In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain – LADCC Award, Best Ensemble), Brian Tichnell (Dream Catcher at the Fountain, HBOs Silicon Valley, L.A. Theatre Works’ national tour of The Graduate) and Karen Malina White (Citizen: An American Lyric and The Ballad of Emmett Till – Best Ensemble LADCC and Ovation Awards – at the Fountain, currently in As You Like It at Antaeus).

“This play couldn’t be more timely,” says Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. “Hurricane Katrina may have ceased in 2005, but the storm of racism, poverty and class inequality rages on in our country to this day. We need look no further than Flint, Michigan, to see systemic government prejudice against citizens of color and the poor. But as Jeremy’s play so beautifully demonstrates, the bonds of family and community will weather any storm.”

When Kamps traveled to New Orleans two years after Katrina to volunteer “gutting and mucking” (stripping homes to the studs to remove mold), he had been teaching middle school in Connecticut. He already had an idea in his head about a runaway girl who collects other people’s garbage, finding meaning in the meaningless.

“Kali’s world paralleled the displacement, hope for renewal, fracture and resilience I was seeing in the social-political reality of the Lower 9th Ward,” he explains. “Whenever a character’s inner life and experience are so congruent with an important social issue, that’s the story I want to write.”

While in New Orleans, Kamps met Antoine, a man in his ‘70s who had just returned to what had been his family’s home for generations. Antoine was going from house to house trying to trace relatives, friends, acquaintances and neighbors, to find out what had happened to them in the years since the storm. “His friendship helped me honor the stories of this community in a truthful way — to see the past, present and future of the Lower 9th through their eyes,” says the playwright.

According to Finney, “Because the media painted them as poor and impoverished, most people don’t realize that the residents of the Lower 9th were working class homeowners. Those homes had been in families for generations. Members of the community were expecting government funds so they could rebuild, but because of red tape and bureaucracy, the money never came, or it took so long that people had to end up using it for rent or just to eat.”

“The mother-daughter relationship becomes the pivotal heart space in this story about this community,” she continues. “The play is very funny because Kali is so spirited, but the rage, helplessness and loss that Kali and her mother share are the core of the play. That is the challenge they both struggle with to find their way back to each other and home. What happens to people when they aren’t seen, when they don’t feel safe? How do you begin to rebuild your life when nobody cares?”

Jeremy Kamps’s plays have received awards and recognition including the William Saroyan Human Rights Award Finalist (2016); Page 73 Semi-Finalist (2017); Ruby Lloyd Apsey Award (Gutting); The Goldberg Prize; Woodward International Playwriting (What It Means To Disappear Here); Hudson Valley Writers Center and the NYU Festival of New Works (Water Hyacinth). His play Breitwisch Farm will be produced by Esperance Theater Company in NYC later this year. Recent productions include Gutting, presented by the National Black Theatre of Harlem and What It Means To Disappear Here (Ugly Rhino, NYC). His work has been produced/developed with Esperance Theater Company, Company Cypher at the National Black Theatre of Harlem, Ugly Rhino, Dixon Place, Hudson Valley Shakespeare, The Amoralists and New York Theatre Workshop. His fiction has been published in The Madison Review and The Little Patuxent; has been honored with the H.E. Francis Award, the Howard/John Reid Fiction Prize and was a Lamar York Prize finalist; and has been recognized in Glimmertrain, Inkwell, The Caribbean Writer and New Millenium. He is a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. Also an educator and activist, Jeremy has lived and worked for lengthy periods of time in Latin America, India and East Africa, where he focused on support and empowerment for former child soldiers, displaced peoples and child rights. He recently received the Theatre Communications Group “On the Road” grant to return to Kenya where he conducted drama workshops as part of his research for a new play on flower farms. He has facilitated drama and writing workshops around the world and for all ages. He has an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

Shirley Jo Finney has previously directed acclaimed Fountain productions of Citizen: An American Lyric (selected for CTG’s first annual Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water (for which she earned her second Ovation award), Heart Song, The Ballad of Emmett TillYellowman, Central Avenue and From the Mississippi Delta.  Her work has been seen at the McCarter Theater, Pasadena Playhouse, Goodman Theater, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Cleveland Playhouse, L.A. Theatre Works, Crossroads Theater Company, Actors Theater of Louisville Humana Festival, Mark Taper Forum, American College Theatre Festival, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and at the State Theater in Pretoria, South Africa, where she helmed a critically acclaimed production of the South African opera, Winnie, based on the life of political icon Winnie Mandela. For television, she directed several episodes of Moesha, and she garnered the International Black Filmmakers ‘Best Director’ Award for her short film, Remember Me.She is the recipient of the African American Film Marketplace Award of Achievement for Outstanding Performance and Achievement and leader in Entertainment.

The creative team for Runaway Home includes scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, lighting designer Jennifer Edwards, composer/sound designer Peter Bayne, costume designer Naila Aladdin Sanders, props designer DeAnne Millais, choreographer TylerJanet Roston and dialect coach Tyler Seiple. The production stage manager is Jessaica Shields; associate producer is James Bennett; and Stephen SachsSimon Levy and Deborah Lawlor produce for the Fountain Theatre.

The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the 2014 Ovation Award for Best Season and the 2014 BEST Award for overall excellence from the Biller Foundation; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s upcoming Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and the naming of seven Fountain productions in a row as “Critic’s Choice” in the Los Angeles Times. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.

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From Schenkkan to Shakespeare, the same urgent warning

BUILDING THE WALL prod photo VP 2

Victoria Platt and Bo Foxworth in ‘Building the Wall’

By Stephen Sachs

One play was written more than 400 years ago, the other last October. Both written by playwrights worried about the future of their countries. One author took months to pen his work, the other took one week.  One writer has been dead 400 years, one is very much alive, chronicling the current political crisis of his time with a dire new play now playing on our Fountain stage. Both authors and their plays have been in the news in recent weeks, igniting a firestorm of national conversation on the role of theatre to express political outrage, and its fundamental right and responsibility to do so. The Fountain Theatre is a voice in that debate. 

As many know, The Public Theater’s production this month in New York of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar drew fire from Right-Wing Conservatives for its depiction of the ruler as a petulant Trump-like politician with blondish hair and a sullen Slavic wife.  Outrage from Conservatives targeted the play’s depiction of Caesar’s assassination, missing the larger meaning of the play, as if director Oskar Eustis was advocating the killing of the current president. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew their corporate sponsorship. Right-Wing groups hired demonstrators to picket the venue and harass theatergoers. Protesters heckled the live performances and wildly stormed the stage to stop the play mid-show. The demonstrators’ feeble attempts may have halted a performance momentarily but, in each instance, the show went on. If anything, it drew national focus to the very thing it schemed to suppress. Art cannot be stopped.

Most discouraging to me, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that hails itself as providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation, distanced itself from the production by releasing a statement declaring that NEA funds were not used to support this staging of Julius Caesar. An ironic stance for a federal arts agency whose very existence Trump has vowed to destroy.

Julius CaesarBy William Shakespeare Directed by Oskar Eustis Featuring Tina Benko (Calpurnia); Teagle F. Bougere (Casca); Yusef Bulos (Cinna the Poet); Eisa Davis (Decius Brutus); Robert Gilbert (Octavius); Gregg Henry (Caesar); Edward James Hyland (Lep

‘Julius Caesar’ at The Public Theater, NY

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Fountain Theatre has been running our sold-out world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall. It is a riveting drama set in the near future exposing the vulnerability of one man caught up in the horrific unraveling of Trump’s anti-immigration policies.  Robert and I knew the play would generate some interest from the press. Neither of us anticipated the avalanche that has ensued. We’ve been bombarded by interview requests from everywhere. The play and the Fountain production were featured in national news outlets across the country, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and TIME magazine. Plus international coverage in the UK and France. “Theatre in the Age of Trump” is now suddenly a hot topic.

untitledThe Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar and the Fountain Theatre’s production of Building the Wall coincided this month.  Newspapers on both coasts featured stories on both productions, with Oskar Eustis and Robert Schenkkan speaking out boldly for not only the right, but the necessity of freedom of speech and unrestricted artistic expression in this country.  The subject of ‘The Politics of Theater’ became a significant Arts cover feature in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.     

The Right-Wing protesters who stormed the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park no doubt never read Julius Caesar and certainly knew little about it. They focused on the killing of the king, unaware of the greater warning the tale foretells: Beware when you get what you want. A tyrant in power mandated to save the republic can lead to the destruction of the very republic he vows to protect. Shakespeare demands us to recognize that more than a ruler is assassinated in this tragedy. It is democracy itself that is murdered.

Julius Caesar and Breaking the Wall expose the same fatal wound within ourselves. Our susceptibility to become what we hate. Rick’s slow and seamless transformation in Building the Wall, from well-meaning Trump follower to death camp superintendent is so nightmarish and appalling because it seems somehow plausible. This is how Schenkkan and Shakespeare caution us. This dark truth is perfectly crystalized by Shakespeare when Cassius warns, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It is not fate, but weakness of character that forces a person to act against his will.

RS in FT rehearsal March 2017

Playwright Robert Schenkkan in rehearsal, Fountain Theatre

“The danger is always giving over your moral calculus to the state,” Robert Schenkkan has said. Fighting a tyrant does not mean imitating him. Julius Caesar no more advocates the killing of a king than Building the Wall promotes the mass detention and extermination of immigrants. Neither play is about genocide or the murder of a tyrant. Each is about the killing of social and political order, played out in the souls of specific human beings. Building the Wall is a razor-sharp two-character play that takes place in one room. Two people in extreme close up.  

Shakespeare based his play Julius Caesar (some say he stole entire sections of it) from Plutarch’s biography of the ruler. Of his examination Plutarch said, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives.”

Plays, too, are about lives, not ideas. Good plays, plays that matter and live forever, have compelling themes and thought-provoking viewpoints and concepts but they are told through the dramatization of human lives. The power of Building the Wall lies in how it puts a human face on the inhuman. It reveals the dichotomy of opposites alive in one man: the wish to do what is right versus the inability to see, and speak out against, what is wrong.   

For all of us at the Fountain Theatre, Building the Wall is more than a play. It is a defining moment, one of many that help set our compass as a company and as artists. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our service, our responsibility, to the community, to our nation?   

This administration fears artists for the same reason it has banned TV cameras from live press briefings. It is terrified that the American people will see the truth. Our role as theatre artists, like that of a free press, is to be truth-tellers.  And to fight for the freedom to speak it, through art.

I am so proud that the Fountain Theatre took the stand of leadership in launching Robert’s new work, and that it continues to ignite this firestorm of conversation, artistic soul-searching and journalistic examination.  That our world premiere production is not only still running after four sold out months but has been extended through August is a testament to its urgent necessity and the overwhelming will expressed by our audiences to engage. 

When art and politics collide like this on a local and national level, theaters like ours, and the art we create, become indispensable not only to our city, but our nation. 

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles.

Fountain Theatre pledges it will not be silent

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Fountain Family: We will not be silent.

Have you heard of Rabbi Joachim Prinz? Probably not. In August of 1963, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. were among the ten leaders of the March on Washington.  Preceding King to the platform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before King declared his dream to the world, Prinz delivered a stirring speech against silence in the face of injustice.  It was an expression of his life-long commitment to equality and tolerance. 

rabbi-prinz“Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept,” he said. “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘.the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

This past weekend, more than 50 years later, women across the nation marched on Washington once again. And on the Thursday prior to marching, on the eve of the Presidential Inauguration,  the Fountain Theatre made a pledge. It would not be silent.

Streaming live on Facebook, the Fountain joined 728 other theaters in all 50 states who gathered outside theaters nationwide to create a “light” for these dark times ahead. The Ghostlight Project offered theater artists and patrons the opportunity to renew a pledge to stand and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone, regardless of race, class, religion, country of origin, immigration status, (dis)ability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The Fountain Theatre joined theaters across the country to reaffirm and declare our commitment and solidarity to provide safe, brave spaces that will serve as lights in the coming years. List of participating theaters in ALL 50 STATES

What is a ghostlight? When our theaters go dark at the end of the night, we turn on a “ghost light” – offering visibility and safety for all who might enter. This is our theatrical tradition and the inspiration for this national event. Like a ghostlight, the light we created on January 19th represents our commitment to provide safety, a safe harbor, for everyone. To resist intolerance at all levels.

Fountain folk were asked to make signs, affirming “I Am” and “I Fight For”. Take a look.

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On Thursday night, a crowd of Fountain Family members — actors, directors, stage managers, patrons and supporters — gathered outside the theatre at exactly at 5:30pm to join the live feed on Facebook. A statement was read by Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, and the group switched on the portable lights they were asked to bring, in symbolic gesture of adding light into the coming darkness.

The ceremony continued inside. Morlan Higgins played guitar and sang a song by Woody Guthrie. Stephen Sachs listed three Fountain productions of plays that dramatized the issues of tolerance, equality, and inclusion. My Mañana Comes brought to life the struggle of immigration, The Ballad of Emmett Till shed light on racism, and the The Normal Heart articulated the fight against AIDS and social prejudice in the gay community. Stephen then introduced cast members from these productions, each performing selections giving voice to these themes. It was very powerful and moving.

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Quoting Rabbi Prinz, Sachs then announced the Fountain Theatre’s pledge that it “will not be silent.” He then instructed the group to once again switch on their portable lights, as he turned on the Fountain ghostlight that stood on stage, as a beacon of hope.

The Fountain ceremony ended with everyone joining Morlan on guitar and singing together the lively gospel song,  “This Little Light of Mine”.  Afterwards, the group gathered upstairs in the cafe for excited conversation, pizza and beer.

It was an inspiring and joyous evening. Like the light we shine, we will carry our pledge forward into the new year, and the years forever after. We will not remain silent.

Making the world a better place: Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell

Mitch OFarrell award

Mitch O’Farrell accepts last night’s Community Partner award. 

by Stephen Sachs

Last night, I attended an event celebrating Playwrights Arena and honoring Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. Mitch was presented with Playwright Arena’s Community Partner Award. I was asked to write the tribute to Mitch for the program:  

We are blessed. We are blessed to live in this beautiful city that bursts with the light of  creative energy. Blessed to live in this time when so much change and advancement and development is burgeoning around us. And for those of us fortunate to live and/or work in City District 13, we are blessed to have Mitch O’Farrell as our Councilmember.

Mitch OFarrell

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell

Mitch is a tireless advocate for the arts in Los Angeles. When the LA theatre community was embroiled in a union battle threatening its survival, Mitch O’Farrell took a public stand on our behalf and spoke out on the importance of LA’s vibrant intimate theatre scene. When The Blank Theatre’s Daniel Henning lobbied fervently to have a stretch of Santa Monica Blvd designated as Hollywood Theatre Row, Mitch O’Farrell lead the initiative into City Hall and made the motion before the LA City Council. He made sure it happened. And stood beside us celebrating on the day that official permanent designation sign was proudly unveiled.  These and many other acts of service, acts of kindness, he gives to us and the community continuously.

Mitch is our champion, our angel for the arts. And he is our friend. In this era of political distrust and nay-saying, Mitch’s first response to those seeking assistance is always  “What can I do to help?”

In the LA Times, when wrestling over a recent decision, Mitch quoted the words of Hillel, a famous Jewish religious leader and one of the most important figures in Jewish history. “In approaching this topic, “ Mitch stated, “I asked myself, if not me who? And if not now, when?” This from a nice Irish boy from Oklahoma.

To me, there is no higher calling than tikkun olam. In modern Jewish circles, tikkun olam has come to mean social action and the pursuit of social justice for the benefit of others. Tikkun olam means “to repair the world”. Not by what you believe. By what you do. Through your actions, you make the world a better place. This Mitch has done, and continues to do, every day. A blessing.