Yvette Sirker's Troubled Waters, recently on the boards at Dillard University, eerily echoes the tales of victims and survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The disaster that concerns Sirker is the Mississippi River flood of 1927 and the dynamiting of the levees in Plaquemines Parish. But, at the core of the two dramas, there is the same sense of individuals with their private store of hopes and fears suddenly struck down by a huge, unpredictable event.
In Troubled Waters, we enter a small, African-American community and discover it's actually a bucolic cauldron seething with complications, intrigues and secrets from the past. But the entire structure of complex human relationships that make it up is doomed.
The set (by Ken Conner) is simple and monumental: a large metal truss bridge or railway trestle in silhouette. Beneath it, off to one side, there is an upright piano. Two low platforms mark the playing areas. They will serve for a variety of locations.
The piano player (no musician is credited in the program) plays music composed by New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield (of Los Hombres Calientes fame). While by no means a musical, Troubled Waters benefits from these tasteful, sparse, evocative interludes -- sometimes no more than short segments for a cappella chorus.
The play begins with a line of characters on the stage. Each introduces himself, briefly and with a bit of humor. For instance: An older brother complains about his younger brother, who doesn't like to work; a few minutes later, we meet the younger brother who complains that his older brother works too damn much.
We meet Felix Marchand Dugras (Chevas Perkins), a Creole who has inherited his father's plantation, which he hates. His heart is in Paris, and he wants to write. We meet Lady Mississippi (Autumn Knight), an independent woman who runs a juke joint. We meet the aforementioned brothers Arthur (Aaron Jackson), the slacker, and Calfort (Jerron O'Neal), the industrious one. We meet Mr. B. (Hollis Hayden Jr.), a bootlegger; Henrietta Hughes (Tonika Davis) and Augustine Periloux (Lakesha Glover), both of whom are housekeepers. And, finally, we meet their bosses: James Jennings Crowley (Bob Edes), a white lawyer from Uptown, and his alcoholic cousin, Mrs. Thibideaux (Kara Hadigan), who lives in exile down in Plaquemines.
All these characters, black and white, are flawed and likable. The villains of the piece are nameless bankers from New Orleans who want to blow up the levee down river "to prevent a run on the banks" -- presumably referring to financial and not alluvial deposits, though how the two are connected is not made clear. These scoundrels are played by blacks in white face and, in contrast to the characters in the main story, they seem like Brechtian caricatures of irresponsible, greedy tycoons. Mind you, for all I know, that's what they really were. But the difference in theatrical styles between the main characters in the play, and the evil "them" responsible for blowing up the levee is somehow disquieting. To go back to Sept. 11, for instance, as much as the terrorists disgust me, I can imagine them having human feelings and a coherent point of view.
The true strength of Troubled Waters is not its social criticism, but the generosity with which it embraces the main characters, wherever they fall on the social scale. Rich and poor, black and white, the portraits we receive are sympathetic, though not idealized. In fact, in some ways, the most complex and memorable person is the Uptown lawyer, a decent, cultured individual who cannot stand up to his lifelong circle of friends (the bankers who want to blow up the levee). Lacking the courage for heroic defiance, he consoles himself by writing love poems to his dying wife.
Much of the trials and travails in the African-American community can be traced to another off-stage white villain, Mrs. Thibideaux's deceased husband. This hateful individual made a habit of raping black women, with the aid of his gang of armed henchmen. In the wake of one of these attacks, Mr. B., the bootlegger, bashed in the old boy's brains and left him unconscious on the railroad tracks, where he was decapitated by the next train. His wife (the alcoholic society woman) considers the murder "a service to the community" and, if we're to believe the prevailing opinion among her black neighbors, "she called off the law from Mr. B." -- though how such a thing might be effected is left to our imagination.
All in all, Troubled Waters was a likable, inventive play, exuberantly performed and smoothly staged -- more convincing, perhaps, as a Southern gothic tale than as a docudrama.
- Tonika Davis and Tony Andrus share a quiet moment together along Troubled Waters, Yvette Sirker's latest work at Dillard.