Katrina the K Word
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Katrina: the K Word at Augustana College, Winter, 2015

Reliving, not just retelling –

Students in a 300-level play production class will bring to life a milestone of U.S. history they probably can't remember: Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 1,500 people and launched a national discussion about government failures to respond.

They will perform "Katrina: the K Word" to remember the Gulf Coast tragedy on its 10th anniversary. The play is based on interviews with New Orleans residents before, during and after the storm. Students have assumed all of the production positions and have been responsible for auditions, casting, directing, designing scenic and costume elements, and stage management.

"I actually do have a few memories of hearing about Katrina, but they're quite disjointed," said senior Rukmini Girish. "Still, I didn't have to do a whole lot of research because the play itself does a very good job explaining what happened and the reasons that Katrina affected New Orleans so much."

Girish said she watched videos of interviews with survivors to work on her character and better understand how the storm changed people. "I was still surprised, though, that there was so much government mismanagement before the storm, which caused the levee breaks," she said.

The production has challenged the students both on stage and behind the scenes. “This show is interesting because the characters speak in past tense, but we see the action happening in the present.” said senior Luke Currie, a co-director. “This story becomes a reliving of the event, instead of a simple retelling."

The show holds special meaning for the Department of Theatre Arts, as the costume supervisor, Ellen Dixon, survived Hurricane Katrina. She remembers many images of the destruction: a McDonald’s that was only a metal frame and hanging wires, a woman who sat at her dining room table on her front lawn and invited folks to come visit, and the Red Cross providing warm meals.

“Without the kindness of others and the community working together, nothing would have gotten done,” Dixon said.

Sophomore cast member Debo Balogun said that acting in a play based on a historical event means helping to make sure people are not forgotten. "The script was compiled using the testimonials of actual Katrina survivors," he said. "You think to yourself, 'These are people's lives. This is what was happening around us at some point.' In that way it feels like handling something so incredibly authentic and also delicate."

Girish said she also felt a responsibility to portray the story faithfully. "There were real people who went through what we're presenting on stage, and it's up to us to show respect to them," she said. "When you're working on something fictional, you still have to be faithful to the characters, but there's a little less pressure."

Katrina: the K Word is an important and compassionate work for the contemporary stage. With pathos, humor and artful theatricality, Lisa Brenner and Suzanne Trauth take the audience on a vivid journey in and out of a national tragedy. The resilient spirit of New Orleans and its multi-cultured people shines through with a vivacity that can only come from a first-hand account.”

Chris Ceraso
Actor/Playwright/Faculty, Drew University
"Joe" in Katrina: the K Word at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and Drew University

“I want to thank you for the opportunity to see your play. You very accurately captured the emotions of the victims. The Centenary College students who have traveled to NOLA and worked with victims, commented many times to me that it was amazing that what they heard on stage was exactly what they heard from the people they worked with and experienced when they were there.”

Dr. Norman Cetuk
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice
Centenary College

“This wonderful play captures the essence of the Katrina experience using the incredibly powerful words of those who were there. I was overwhelmed by its honesty and highly recommend this production to all who hold the damaged city of New Orleans in their hearts.”

Jack Bowers
New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity

“We presented the staged reading of Katrina: the K Word to sold-out houses. The show affected everyone who participated from actors to audience members. Many in the audience were moved to tears each evening and said they'd love to see the show done as a full-scale production. Thank you for this experience.”

Ruthel Honey Darvas, M.A.
PhD Candidate Wayne State University
University of West Georgia Faculty

Katrina: the K Word is an amazing documentary drama piece with real interviews of New Orleans residents. When I saw the production, I had that same feeling I had when I was touring New Orleans, the same terror and sadness that made me want to run away from the city, but also kept me wanting to witness, because this could happen to anyone.”

John Pietrowski
Artistic Director
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
Madison, New Jersey

“What is so striking about this play is how immediate it is. Hurricane Katrina cannot be filed safely away in the past. The personal accounts are thoroughly absorbing, shocking, and heartbreaking. This is a play that truly inspires positive social action. Several audience members commented to me about how they did not understand the things that happened in the aftermath of the storm and that the play really opened their eyes. It was an excellent project to work on with my students for several reasons. This project gave a large number of them the opportunity to participate in a theatre production and apply what they have learned about acting. In addition, it made them more sensitive and socially aware citizens. This is a play with many excellent educational and artistic outcomes.”

Antoinette Doherty (Director of staged reading of Katrina: the K Word)
Assistant Professor of Communication and Theatre
Prince George's Community College
Largo, MD

“First, I want to say that I appreciate you and your cast for putting on this production. This was something that was near and very dear to my heart. There are no words that I can possibly share with you. I am very grateful. I know that the production touched the very hearts of many people who were not fully aware of the impact the storm had... Looking back at 9/11, I felt sorry for the people in New York. I was able to empathize with them. The feeling of not knowing where relatives were or knowing how it feels to be struck with fear and the sense that death was near. However, when Katrina hit, my life was forever altered. My destiny at one point seemed uncertain. I felt forgotten. Thank you for telling mine and others’ story.”

Kartisia Esco
Former resident of New Orleans
Interviewed for Katrina: the K Word

“The creative staging, writing, props, directing, just all of it
was incredible. I even recognized parts of Karen’s and Kartisia’s experiences woven in. Your students are incredible; so believable and engaging. I was sorry when it was over; I guess I am too accustomed to TV and wanting to peer into their lives next week. Bravo. Thank you for a wonderful experience.”

Marsha Grant-Ford
Faculty Member, Exercise Science and Physical Education
Montclair State University

“We in New Orleans are sincerely grateful for every person who steps forward for us and you have not only done that, but have encouraged others to do so. Thank you for bringing the true story of Hurricane Katrina to your community…If I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Gratefully yours,
Carol Stauder
Guide, Hurricane Katrina Tour
Gray Line Bus Tours
Interviewed for Katrina: the K Word

“I think The K Word is a superb way to enroll young people in the story about this cataclysmic event in our county’s recent history. The play, although a compilation of numerous voices collected from extensive interviews, has been crafted to follow the journey of twelve distinctive characters. These are all characters you care about. I can think of no better play suitable to the times for college or high school actors to commit to. It is educational in the best sense of the word. The actor will feel this is his/her own testimony and that he/she was an eye witness…a living history! The student actor will examine the political, racial, social, industrial and environmental policies of America in the new millennium. It is a good, moving story as well.”

June Ballinger
Producing Artistic Director
Passage Theatre Company
Trenton, NJ

"The K Word is a potent example of how personal commitment sets about
to expose social injustice as evidenced by each student's immersion in
the stories you chose to reveal. I make a special inclusion of your
student dramaturg whose heart was so present throughout the
performance. Rare is a theater work that truly gives voice to
citizenry who have been cast aside by the powerful and the selfish in
our society. I very much hope you find more ways to say the k-word out

Jed Wheeler
Executive Director
Arts and Cultural Programming
Montclair State University

“By learning about what happened in New Orleans during Katrina and embodying the emotions and experiences of a real person onstage, I was inspired to spend a week during my spring break volunteering in New Orleans. I have never experienced such hospitality and gratitude from any citizens of any city in my entire life.”

Suzanne Shepcock
Actor/Student, Drew University
"Faith" in Katrina: the K Word at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and Drew University

“As I sat in the audience that evening I quickly became engaged in the lives and stories of the characters who suffered during Katrina. The play took me into a world I could have never expected. I wanted to go out and do something to help. Over winter break I went with other students to New Orleans and helped to rebuild churches, Women’s Shelters and the homes of people living in completely devastated neighborhoods in the Lower Ninth Ward. Every day, I am thankful for the opportunity that I was given to help. It would not have happened without the play. Katrina: the K Word speaks to audiences.”

Kara Schechner-Kanofsky
Student, Drew University

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