Tuesday, December 1, 2015

An Interview with Playwright Rob Florence

by Donald G. Redman

Rob Florence is originally from New York and moved to New Orleans in 1987 only to discover that his father’s family had been in the region since the 1840s. “In doing family genealogical research I discovered the wonders of New Orleans aboveground cemeteries,” says Florence. “In some way, most of my plays are connected to New Orleans cemeteries.”
Photo by Steven Forster, NOLA.com

He received a Masters in Playwriting with distinction from the University of New Orleans in 2008 and is the Dramatists Guild Gulf Coast / Mississippi Delta Regional Representative.
His body of work includes: Bones; Burn K-Doe Burn!; Mirrors of Chartress Street; Fleeing Katrina; The Key and Holy Wars.

I caught up with Rob Florence for an interview on the eve of Slidell Little Theatre's production of Katrina: The Mother-in-Law of 'em All on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

What was your relationship with the K-Doe family?

FLORENCE: I was fortunate to have a close relationship with the K-Doe's, as they were extraordinary people.  I knew Ernie K-Doe back in the 1980s when his drinking problem was so bad that he would sometimes sleep on the street.  I saw Antoinette come into his life, literally pick him up out of the gutter, sober him up, and add years to his life which turned out to be an amazing experience for the many people who shared it with them.  They opened the Mother in Law Lounge which was their home, so when you were at the bar you were in their living room.  The place was a shrine to New Orleans R&B, full of dazzling, eccentric memorabilia.

Like the K-Doe's themselves, the Lounge was surreal.  The K-Doe's shared my interest in New Orleans cemeteries.  We had a cemetery preservation group called Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries.  Ernie K-Doe was the grand marshal, making us the only preservation group in the world with a grand marshal.  I was responsible for burying both Antoinette and Ernie in the historic St. Louis Cemetery #2 and wrote the text for their historic markers.  Antoinette K-Doe asked me to write a play about them called BURN K-DOE BURN! and she asked me to write this piece about her Katrina experience.

What was the genesis of “Katrina: Mother-in-Law of ‘em All?”

FLORENCE: Although I'm a playwright and writer of nonfiction which focuses of this region, Katrina was the last thing in the world I wanted to write about.  I wanted to put it out of my mind, which was of course impossible, but I certainly didn't want to live with it 24 hours a day as you do when writing about something.  However, in listening to people over the subsequent months and years, I'd occasionally hear stories which were so different from the popular narratives that they compelled me to write them.  The differences that struck me in these stories were that although all these people went through hell, they landed on their feet in a very strong, defiant, New Orleans way. 

They also in many cases got through their experience with humor, which is very New Orleans.  If this experience had happened to another city I don't think I'd have found narratives that are so funny.  Something else these stories emphasize is that despite how the region was portrayed – defeated, chaotic, criminal – anyone here at the time can tell you that thousands of people were behaving in exemplary ways.  Strangers were helping strangers –  countless acts of self-sacrifice, compassion, and kindness that seemed to be hidden from people outside the region.  So part of this project was an attempt in a small way to create a record from the inside-out which establishes that post-Katrina New Orleans wasn't all what people were seeing on television, as this dialogue from the play illustrates:

So I go back into the room where my folks are and they had run into some of the people who had been on the roof with us. So there was this group of octogenarians but with only one cot and they were taking turns lying down. The young folks were trying to help the nurses, handing out water, taking people to the bathroom, changing diapers, whatever we could. We had heard all these horror stories about the city so I walk over to this nurse I see from Alaska and say, “I just want to let you know how thankful we are that you’re here because we keep hearing these stories about horrific things going on all over New Orleans and I just want you to know that the whole city isn’t populated by crazed lunatics who are burning it down and that we appreciate your -
Nobody thinks that.

You write that these are based on true stories. How did you come to learn these stories? 

 FLORENCE: I think I was fortunate to access these stories because I wasn't looking for them. Again, I was trying to mentally escape from Katrina.  But like everyone else here for the past 10 years, I've been listening to hundreds, maybe thousands, of these experiences.  So the stories kind of came to me.  At the time, there were writers parachuting into the region with tape recorders looking for material, which struck me as odd with all the work that needed to be done.  Could you imagine going to Haiti after the earthquake with a tape recorder looking for stories with all the death and destruction that needed attention?  For her PhD in Theatre History at L.S.U., Anne-Liese Juge Fox wrote a paper on Katrina plays written by regional writers as opposed to out-of-state writers.  She concluded that out-of-state writers, "Cut your heart out, put it on a plate and ate it in front of you," whereas the regional playwrights humanized the people of this region through their Katrina experiences.  

How were you personally affected by the hurricane?

FLORENCE: If I were to sum up in a few sentences what happened to my life during Katrina, most people outside of here would say, "That's horrible!"  But compared to so many people I ultimately did much better so I don't like to dwell on negative things that happened to me back then.  And moving-on is a characteristic I see in New Orleans people and which people have identified in this play.  About an earlier version of this play which went to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, one of the KCACTF adjudicators commented that the characters aren't self-pitying, which is compelling for the audience.  I guess as bad as their experiences were to begin with, they were still alive?  David Hoover, director of that U.N.O. production, commented on this lack of self-pity by comparing it to Vietnam War plays which David summed up like this:  "O.K., I'm going to tell you about my pain.  Alright, get a little closer, because you need to know about my pain.  O.K., here comes the story about my pain:  YOU CAN'T UNDERSTAND MY PAIN!!!"   

Some of the positive effects of Katrina have been that although I've always loved the people of New Orleans, Katrina made me love them much more.  The devastating human failures of Katrina were governmental but on a local level many people conducted themselves heroically. And we all know how fantastic the rest of the country and people from other countries have been to us for the past 10 years.  So although Katrina made me deeply cynical and bitter toward all levels of government, the experience actually made me feel better about individual human nature.  

Photo credit: The Times-Picayune

The interview with Rob Florence originally appeared in Slidell Little Theatre's e-zine, Prologue, an audience guide to Katrina: The Mother-in-Law of 'em All and on the theatre's blog. Learn more about the late Ernie K-Doe here.

No comments:

Post a Comment