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'Swimming' back home: A play by and for Katrina's women warriors returns to the city of its birth (The Times-Picayune)

Originally published in:
The Times-Picayune

By Molly Reid
Staff writer

Eve Ensler has seen the burden women carry in times of crisis.

The celebrated playwright and activist, author of "The Vagina Monologues" and founder of V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women, has traveled around the world to counsel women who have lived through unthinkable horrors: sexual violence in war-torn Bosnia, Haiti, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; families, homes and livelihoods destroyed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Ensler knew that the women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast also carried a weighty load as victims of catastrophe. Following Hurricane Katrina, women assumed the burden of their own pain, as well as that of their husbands, children and family, she said. Witnessing that struggle inspired her to create a new play, "Swimming Upstream," written by and for the "Katrina Warriors" who have contributed so much to rebuilding the region.

The play premiered in April at the V-Day 10th anniversary celebration in New Orleans, and returns Tuesday for the first local repeat performance since its debut.

"Usually, (women) are the people who don't create the wars or pick up the guns, or have a say in the structural realities of crisis," Ensler said in a recent phone interview, "yet they are the ones who always end up picking up the community, repairing the community, because they are so resilient."

The play was formed through the stories of 16 female Katrina survivors who met for monthly writing collaborations with Ensler over a year-long period. The contributors included actors, writers, a storyteller, a spoken word artist, a Mardi Gras Indian and other members of the New Orleans cultural arts scene, said Anne-Liese Juge Fox, one of the members of the original writing team and artistic director of NOLA Playback Theatre.

"Eve's approach was, she knew we were experts in what we were going through," Fox said. "Writing it . . . was very healing; it was very cathartic. Eve met with us each time and helped us, really kind of helped us direct our writing in terms of what we wanted to come up with, taking out our personal experiences and writing about them."

Some members drew from personal experiences, while others interviewed friends, family and strangers to gather material, Fox said. After a year, Ensler took the main story lines the writers had identified and "went away and crafted it, really brought it together to give it a dramatic structure," Fox said.

The result was a play similar to "The Vagina Monologues," in that each woman tells an individual story. But unlike "Monologues," which is in strict monologue form, all the women in "Swimming Upstream" are onstage together, and take turns sharing parts of their stories as the others chime in to respond.

The play covers experiences from before, during and after Katrina, and the characters are drawn from a wide cross-section of New Orleans society, from an older Uptown white woman to a black woman from the Lower 9th Ward. All share the pain of the storm and the responsibility of dealing with its aftermath in their families' and friends' lives.

"The piece takes an emotional journey," Fox said. "It's a very poly-vocal piece. We are taking on several women's experiences. It's the stream, everybody struggling up the same stream."

The play premiered April 11 to an audience of more than 5,000 at the Louisiana Superdome, which had been transformed in honor of V-Day into "Superlove," a calming respite with massages, story sharing circles and other indulgences for thousands of Katrina survivors who attended. The performance mixed celebrities with local performers, and was accented by outbursts of affirmation from the audience, recalled Carol Bebelle, executive director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, which is co-producing the play with V-Day.

"It was the whole notion of the audience being picked up and not being let go until it was over," Bebelle said. "All the comments -- 'Yeah, you right,' 'Yes indeed,' 'Amen!' -- it was like church, just testifying to the accuracy of it. You see the red eyes of the folks leaving, and the people grabbing you -- I was just blown away."

Tuesday's performance here coincides with Ashe's 10th anniversary, and the nonprofit organization also produced an 11-show run of "Swimming Upstream" in Atlanta, where it was performed by the True Colors Theatre Company, Bebelle said.

Celebrity performers Jasmine Guy, Shirley Knight and Liz Mikel are scheduled to appear in the New Orleans show, which will take place at the Howlin' Wolf.

Ensler said she hopes the performance will give more New Orleans women a chance to exorcise their own Katrina experiences through the stories of the characters. Although the storm is three years past, she added, the impact of the storm on New Orleans is still palpable.

"We know it's really hard for people in New Orleans now," Ensler said.

But the message of "Swimming Upstream" is a positive one.

"This piece is about how women kept New Orleans together," Ensler said, "through cooking, through grassroots movements, love of their children, they kept New Orleans moving forward."