Review – The Play About My Dad – Jermyn Street Theater

by

With daily headlines about the youth sports team trapped in a cave in Thailand, Monday night seemed perfect timing to be watching a play about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of residents of Missippi. Spun out amongst three groups of people as the moment of crisis approached and the tension ratcheted, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Floyd Collins, the musical about the man trapped in a cave in 1930s Kentucky. Would htey live? Would they die? The four families Boo Killebrew chose to show us were unknowns, all potential members of the class of 1836 people killed in this murderous storm. It made for riveting viewing. Who would make it out alive?

Killebrew chose an intriguing framing device, of putting herself and her father Larry (David Shaal) as characters in the play, so that she could write about the process of writing and creating in a meta-theatrical way, as well as exploring their relationship. Larry the character is thus able to speak about what Larry Killebrew saw, as a doctor at a hospital, and about his relationship with Boo (Hannah Britland) and about the writing process in general. Killebrew then adds some people she knew less well as characters (specifically Kenny Tyson – Ammar Duffus – an ambulance driver, and Essie Watson – Miquel Brown – Dad Killebrew’s babysitter from way back when), and then four other people, a family and another EMT, to round out the stories. But Killebrew herself was not there, which is a bit of a shame. That said, I was torn between finding the use of her insertion of herself as playwright into the narrative irritating, as it introduced a lot of superfluous dialogue, and finding it fascinating, because, well, I too write plays, and I found the discussions of her technique very, very interesting – so interesting it distracted me from the actual narratives she had created.

Still, it was the topic of Hurricane Katrina that drew me to this show. I don’t often get to see plays about recent American history – that is, anything less than a hundred years old – so this attempt to wade into the muck of this shameful catastrophe was square center in my mind’s eye. How would a play about Katrina spin out? How much focus would we get on the woeful response of people on the ground? How much on the disproportionate effect of the hurricane on the black and elderly? Would we look at the policemen that refused to let black citizens drive out of New Orleans? Would we look at the causes of the disaster?

In short, no, we did not. We heard three tales of people who mostly fatally affected by the storm. We struggled with them as they attempted to deal with the fact the waters were rising so high that they were likely to wind up drowned; we wondered why they did not leave when the danger of staying was clear. And side by side with their stories we hear the story of Boo Killebrew struggling with her father leaving his family (Boo and her mom), and the fear she felt when their car ran out of gas during a storm, and a little bit about what was happening and Larry Killebrew’s hospital during and after the storm.

But some very big questions aren’t answered. And, for me very oddly in a play set in the South, we have no discussion or examination of racial interactions, and, rather worse I think, no examination of the impact of poverty on people’s outcomes. So many people who couldn’t swim; so many people who couldn’t drive away; so many people that weren’t able to keep up their houses; so many people afraid of what missing three days of work would do to them. And alongside it we have two well to do white people whose concerns during the storm were buying a dress and getting phone service again. In the end, it felt like there were two entirely different stories being told – one about Hurricane Katrina, and one about a father/daughter relationship – but by blending them together, Killebrew makes it look like she is exploiting other people’s suffering without really understanding it, and trying to equate her emotional experience with people actually dying. The net effect is to pollute both stories. The people who die are just backdrop to a family drama, but in fact theirs is the real drama. There are some good threads going here and some good roles for non-white actors – a pleasure to see in London to be sure – but it would be better to see this done as “The Play About Katrina” and “The Play About My Dad,” so the issues in each play could be focused on appropriately without one trivializing the other. The story of Kenny Tyson dealing with his mother’s loss and being able to see the past and the future is interesting enough to carry its own play; I’d love to see him, and the other working class and poor people of The Play About My Dad, brought front and center with their own play. Still, it was nice to see recent, and important, US history put on stage, and brilliant to get to see the people from the South shown as just typical folks holding down jobs and looking after their families. I look forward to seeing how Killebrew’s work develops as she matures.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 9, 2018. It continues through July 21st.)

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