Jefferson Turner, the piano player, is wearing combat fatigues. Ricky Graham enters. He's got a miniature roof on his head. The roof is covered by a blue tarp. I'm Still Here, Me!, Graham's new cabaret show at Le Chat Noir, is a solo act. But if there were a second fiddle, her name would be Katrina.
Bittersweet humor generated by the worst natural disaster in United States history sets the tone for this entertaining romp. And if that sounds a bit morbid, you might think back to Bob Hope wise-cracking to frontline troops in war after war. Laughter is the best medicine, even in the worst of circumstances -- especially in the worst of circumstances.
I'm Still Here, Me! is a simple, straightforward cabaret entertainment. The set is a baby Grand piano, a stool and a microphone. We get songs, jokes and sketches. Graham is a pro. He carries this minimal format with an easy grace. Nowadays, Graham is best known for a startling variety of comic plays he has written on New Orleans' themes. But in the 1970s and '80s he performed at the Old Mint Bar on Decatur Street. He developed his solo chops in that raffish, rowdy atmosphere. Although Graham sings well, he is not primarily a singer; he is a vaudevillian.
But if you fear an overdose of storm jokes, rest assured. Graham doesn't limit himself to Katrina. He meanders wherever his sense of the ridiculous takes him. "Oh, you're going to do a one-man show," he quips (as though he were a sardonic observer of himself). "Who's playing the man?"
One of Graham's strengths has always been his sense of audience. He is in tune with New Orleans people, with their daily lives and concerns, and with the wellsprings of Big Easy nostalgia. Is it possible -- you might wonder -- to speak of "nostalgia" in the same breath that one speaks of Katrina? Well, yes, there is a deepened sense of nostalgia that arises from the loss of what was. In a sense, the title I'm Still Here, Me! could be said not only by our stalwart performer but by the Crescent City herself. In fact, everyone in the audience is reaffirming the title as well just by coming to the show.
I guess you've got to laugh -- or else you would cry. Take FEMA. Please, take FEMA. Graham starts the show with Peggy Lee's classic tune "Fever," but he changes the refrain to "FEMA." We, in the audience, laugh with a feeling of recognition and solidarity. After all, who among us has not been through the Kafka-esque labyrinth of FEMA logic. I, personally, flashed back to a huge government building in Manhattan where I sat down in front of a person wearing a FEMA badge. That FEMA worker telephoned some other FEMA worker and passed me the phone, so that the second FEMA worker could inform me that I had to apply for a small business loan (even if I wasn't a small business and didn't want a loan). Why the FEMA worker sitting opposite me could not inform me of this mind-boggling irrelevancy, I have no idea. But, judging from the laughter at Le Chat Noir, everyone had stories to match.
Graham gets much fun out of this conspiratorial collusion with the audience. For instance, he runs an informal contest about who spent the most time with relatives. And by the way, how many relatives was that?
Throughout the show, Big Easy types give us brief comic tours of their storm-shaken neighborhoods. We meet Marie Antoinette Empestata with her towering column of white hair. She runs the famous school of beauty, doncha know. We meet the world's most unsympathetic meter maid, who's giving tickets to cars for parking up in trees. And we meet Father Bargain from the Religious Shopping Channel with his plastic-miniature-triple-Siamese-twin-nun dolls.
Between times, Graham treats us to many songs. Some are standards, by Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter and other well-known songsmiths. Some are originals by Graham's local collaborators, like Harry Mayronne Jr., Fred Palmisano and Stewart Baker Bergen. Graham himself wrote most of the script and lyrics in this topical, semi-tropical zaniness. Bob Bruce contributed some lyrics. Cecile Covert came up with the wry, outrageous costumes.
Look, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may someday actually build a levee that can withstand a Category 5 storm. Stranger things have happened. But meanwhile, "he's still here, him." And that's a joy and a comfort that will get us through ... until next hurricane season, anyway.
- Looking up: Ricky Graham (right) and accompanist Jefferson Turner offer a raucous collection of Katrina-related humor in Graham's latest cabaret act, I'm Still Here, Me!, currently on the boards at Le Chat Noir.