Playwright John Biguenet on how Hurricane Katrina changed his world 

By the time Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, John Biguenet had already received an O. Henry Award for his short stories, and critics had likened his 2003 novel The Oyster, set on the Louisiana coast in 1957, to the work of Flaubert and Chekhov. But the destruction of Biguenet's hometown—close to 1,500 deaths, demolished neighborhoods, the loss of his own house—turned his writing in a new direction. Since then, he's written several works directly and indirectly linked to the disaster: a collection of three plays titled The Rising Water Trilogy, and Silence, which grew out of nonfiction essays published in The Atlantic. One of those essays, "Silent Reading Doesn't Exist," discusses how Biguenet struggled to read in silence after the hurricane, and how he later discovered that his experience was shared by other Katrina survivors.

Biguenet is one of a handful of special guests coming to Missoula for Colony 22, a four-day event created by Montana Repertory Theatre, at which playwrights and screenwriters develop their work and share staged readings with live audiences. He's been to Missoula before, when the Montana Rep produced his 2014 one-woman play Broomstick, about a morally ambiguous crone who lives in the Appalachian mountains and speaks in verse. At this year's Colony he will deliver a talk and stage his new play, The Trouble with White People, which was inspired by issues raised in post-hurricane New Orleans. In advance of his appearance, Biguenet answered questions via email about Broomstick and the ways in which Hurricane Katrina never leaves his writing.

I got to see Broomstick in Missoula and really loved it. Tell me about your inspiration for that story.

John Biguenet: The impetus for Broomstick was my respect for the female actors with whom I had worked but who, as they grew older, had fewer and fewer roles to play. With decades of stage experience and at the height of their craft, they were consigned to minor roles. So I decided to write a one-woman show about an older woman, partly as a vehicle for these older female theater artists. As I thought about the condition of the older woman, I began to see her as potentially the most independent of human beings—having seen everything, maybe having done everything, almost certainly knowing more than the rest of us. No wonder old women are demonized as witches in cultures all over the globe: We're terrified of their knowledge and power. So I wrote a play about a witch in which she confesses everything from her first love affair, to how she discovered her powers, to what she has done with them.

Why did you write it in iambic pentameter?

JB: In theater we're in a losing competition with film when it comes to special effects, so I cast about for a supernatural power I could portray on stage that film could not match. Since much of the power of the witch resides in her chants and spells and curses, I decided to endow my witch with the ability to use language well beyond the capabilities of ordinary human beings. So I wrote her entire 90-minute monologue in heroic couplets—rhymed iambic pentameter.

What will you be talking about with Missoula audiences?

JB: At the Colony, I'm giving the keynote address, "Questions, Not Answers." The talk examines moral ambiguity and moral exhaustion as it seeks to understand the task of the playwright. One of the few things of which I am confident these days is that the stage is no place to recite opinions: It is a forum in which a community phrases its most pressing questions. Whether we are considering Antigone or Lear or Mother Courage, we are examining powerfully phrased questions, not answers.

click to enlarge John Biguenet’s new play, The Trouble with White People, deals with issues raised in post-hurricane New Orleans. - PHOTO COURTESY JOHN BIGUENET
  • photo courtesy John Biguenet
  • John Biguenet’s new play, The Trouble with White People, deals with issues raised in post-hurricane New Orleans.

Before I read "Silent Reading Doesn't Exist," I'd never heard of people's reading abilities being affected by Hurricane Katrina or any other trauma. Do you still feel the effects?

JB: In the aftermath of a disaster or personal trauma, one holds on so tightly to the self—thanks to overwhelming anxieties about the event and its consequences—that it's extremely difficult to make room for another consciousness and engage in the conversation between writer and audience that constitutes reading. My wife and I were homeless for nearly a year after the levee collapse as we gutted and rebuilt our house, but even while sleeping in a daycare center the first month after martial law was lifted, I was able to write 15 columns for the New York Times and a long essay on New Orleans for Granta magazine in London. However, I found it nearly impossible to read with anything approaching the intensity of my reading before the flood. When I mentioned my inability to other New Orleanians, they expressed relief someone else had the same problem; they, too, could not engage in serious reading. Though I'm a better reader now than I was in the first few years after the flood, my one lasting disability from the flooding of the city is its effect on my reading.

How did the The Rising Water Trilogy and, in particular, the play about Katrina's aftermath, Mold, help you express your thoughts on Hurricane Katrina?

JB: Mold examines what we mean by home. Though hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians never returned to the city, many did to face uninhabitable houses, collapsing streets, no mail delivery, no school system, no streetlights or stoplights in many neighborhoods, few jobs, and almost no housing available to rent. But so great was their homesickness for New Orleans, they returned and rebuilt the city. The stress was enormous, though, and couple after couple split up. As the young woman in Mold finally tells her husband, "I'll be your wife anywhere on earth—except New Orleans." He responds, "If you loved me, you wouldn't make me choose between my wife and my home."

Do you think your work will continue to be colored in big and small ways by the experience?

JB: While working on Mold, I began to want to write something as distant as possible from the devastated city in which I lived. So I thought I'd set a play on a mountaintop. But my effort to escape our catastrophe was futile. Watching one of the first productions of Broomstick, I suddenly realized that even on top of a mountain, I had managed to kill a character in the play in a hurricane. And one of my recent short stories, "Sand," describes a village inundated by drifting sand dunes. Whether I set my work in the desert or on a mountaintop, I seem unable to escape my recent past.

How does New Orleans feel to you 12 years after Hurricane Katrina?

JB: The New Orleans I grew up in is gone. The new New Orleans is richer, younger and whiter than the city that was destroyed by the levee collapse. We'll celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding next year, but we'll also mourn what we've lost.

John Biguenet gives the Missoula Colony's keynote address and presents a reading of his new play at the Masquer Theatre Thu., Aug. 3, at 7 PM. $10. Visit montanarep.org.

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