In 1998, Britain’s National Theatre surveyed 800 savvy stage professionals to determine the 20th century’s “most significant” English language play. The result? Waiting for Godot (1953), originally written in French by Irishman Samuel Beckett, topped the list. Universality is part of the story’s appeal, with a plot and characters not tightly bound to a specific era or culture. Two hapless men wait for someone who never arrives. The Classical Theatre of Harlem, however, puts a compelling new spin on the oft-performed absurdist work by setting it in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Suddenly, fruitless waiting takes on new meaning. The CTH is bringing Godot to Middlebury and Dartmouth Colleges, performing in Vermont and New Hampshire for the first time as it kicks off a six-week East Coast tour.
Christopher McElroen, cofounder and executive director of the decade-old company, directs the production. A core element of the CTH mission is “to make the classics more immediate,” McElroen explains. “Part of our working aesthetic is to dust them off and not treat them as museum pieces … The idea is always to make them immediate and relevant to a contemporary audience, a diverse audience.”
Because of Godot’s towering status in the theatrical canon, it had long been on McElroen’s radar screen as a possible play to tackle. But when he reread it in the wake of the hurricane, he recalls, “It just seemed to fit, without having to change anything.”
The production premiered in New York City with an all African American cast just eight months after Katrina devastated New Orleans. The stage featured a “15,000-gallon swimming pool with a rooftop coming out of the water,” McElroen describes. “We set everything up on the roof. And so it was very much Waiting for Godot the day after the storm, the day after the levees broke.”
Meanwhile, McElroen’s friend and colleague, visual artist Paul Chan, was traveling to New Orleans to teach. Chan reported that the stark post-Katrina landscape in the city’s most devastated neighborhoods “reminded him of every production of Waiting for Godot he’d ever seen,” remembers McElroen. The initial idea — to bring the CTH production to New Orleans — expanded into a community arts initiative as the two men began collaborating with local groups and listening to their needs.
In the fall of 2007, the cast and director spent three weeks on location, rehearsing in an abandoned school in the Ninth Ward. At the same time, they were “doing master classes and community workshops and potluck dinners throughout the city,” McElroen recounts. “Fifty thousand dollars was raised to leave behind with grassroots organizations that were leading rebuilding efforts in the two neighborhoods where we performed the play. And so we took the very basic idea of theater, which is a relationship between an actor and an audience, and expanded that to build community.”
Those neighborhoods were the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, two of the areas hardest hit by Katrina. The free performances took place outside: in the Ninth Ward, at the intersection of two “once-busy streets,” as the New York Times described them; in Gentilly, in front of a “gutted, storm-ruined house.”
Did New Orleans’ searing backdrops burden Beckett’s words with unintended meaning? In 2007, McElroen actually found far more hope than despair. “We infused the play with a lot of optimism, because that was what the city of New Orleans was radiating when we were down there,” he recalls. “People were very optimistic about rebuilding and reclaiming their lives, and they weren’t waiting … We just let the landscape of New Orleans speak for itself … We just let the play speak for itself.”
Margaret Lawrence, the artistic director of Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, has been looking for an opportunity to bring the CTH to the region. She says the “amazing and heartbreaking” Godot embodies why she is so eager to share the group’s work with local audiences. “It’s really easy to be ham-fisted about turning something on its ear,” she reflects. “This company consistently avoids that approach. They walk that fine line of innovation: They’re able to take a great classic and cast it with really strong actors so that they can compellingly tell the story.
“They’re not deviating from the story; they’re not blasting apart the words,” Lawrence continues. “They’re really paying attention to the meaning of the words and the genius of the playwright. But their approach is always revealing new things about it.”
This fall marks the first time the CTH is mounting Godot since the on-location shows. For the tour, “we’ve recreated the intersection where we did the play in the Lower Ninth Ward,” McElroen outlines. “The stage directions in the script are ‘A country road, a tree, evening.’ And so our country road is the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. It looks like that devastation that everyone saw.”
“We wanted to try and continue the experience of what we did down in New Orleans,” he explains. “And continue to spread the word, through Beckett’s play, of folks that are still waiting down there.”