When John Biguenet was writing Rising Water, his play about two people trapped by the flooding of New Orleans, the first four or five drafts were “so furiously angry” that they could not be performed.
Mr. Biguenet, whose family had lived in New Orleans for a couple of centuries, was deeply personally affected, and as a result he was packing his play “full of my opinions . . . my anger and my opinions and my sadness.”
He realized he had to “write myself offstage and leave room for [the two characters] Sugar and Camille to tell their story instead.”
Another five drafts later, what he had was still a drama set in the New Orleans disaster, but the rising water which forces his characters into their attic and then onto their roof became a vehicle for something much more universal.
That is how a relationship, a longstanding relationship between two people survives a crisis.
“If you’ve been together with someone for 30 years, the point’s going to come when you see the water coming up the stairs, and you realize we can’t outrun this.
“In our case it happened to be a flood, but it could be terminal disease, it could be a personal catastrophe. I think it happens to people in a lot of different ways,” he said.
“Everywhere it’s been performed people say the same thing at the end: We thought we were coming to see a play about a hurricane and we wound up seeing a love story instead.
“A really adult love story, too. Not those first few years of love, but three decades in, with all the scars you carry. How are you going to go on loving that person?”
The play, without Mr. Biguenet’s anger and opinions, became an instant success. It became the biggest selling show in the 20-year history of the Southern Repertory Theatre. It won the 2006 National New Play Network Commission Award, was a 2006 National Showcase of New Plays selection, and was nominated for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in drama, among other plaudits.
And now it’s coming to the Vineyard Playhouse. Previews begin Wednesday, and public performances Friday.
But in an interview with Mr. Biguenet last week, it was not the play he wanted to talk about first, but the experiences that led to it.
“We were just completely ripped out of our lives,” he recalled.
“If you lose your house to a fire, you still have your job, you still have the coffee shop where to go to breakfast each morning. You still have friends who you can move in with if necessary.
“But there was just nothing left of our lives.”
He thinks most of America still does not understand either the scale of the disaster or the enormity of it, or the fact that it is ongoing.
“The destruction was extraordinary. The saltwater was allowed to sit in the city for about three weeks. So the water pipes have all been corroded, so the city’s leaking 62 million gallons a day of drinking water under the city.
“The population was about 480,000 when the levees collapsed, and our population now is something like 270,000, 280,000. So 200,000 New Orleanians are still living in exile around the country. And I doubt they’ll be able to come back.”
And Hurricane Katrina was not responsible.
“The hurricane missed New Orleans. We were on the weak side of it,” he said.
“Four months after the flood the government announced the highest sustained winds over Lake Ponchatrain were 78 miles an hour, so it was maybe category two when it hit New Orleans, and we’ve been through that regularly.
“It was not that the hurricane had overtopped levies, or anything like that, but because the levees themselves were so defectively built . . . It was the fact that the United States Army Corps of Engineers couldn’t build levees.”
He cites his experience to underline the point. He had evacuated, but one of his neighbors did not, and the night after the hurricane went through, the neighbor posted a message online.
It said there was no damage to the neighborhood, just a couple of limbs had blown off the trees. “Come home,” the message said.
The next morning, Mr. Biguenet recalled, the family had finished packing the car to return, when they heard on the television that there were unconfirmed reports of flooding in the city.
John Biguenet had written radio plays, stager plays, short stories, novels — but he had never tried journalistic reporting until after the flood.
“The New York Times saw an essay I wrote very early on, when we were just trying to find a place to stay, when the place was closed by the military [and there was] a big dispute, on whether we should be called refugees or evacuees. It went all the way to Congress. I said we’re neither one of those, we’re in exile.
“So when I went back — as soon as we could get past the military — I started reporting for them in a sense, in a series of columns and videos. The play had its genesis in one of those reports, with a column he had written for the Times called How They Died.
“I couldn’t imagine how over a thousand people could die from the flooding. I saw the water rising. It rises so slowly,” he said.
Except, as he found out, in some parts of the city (an area larger than Manhattan) it rose much, much faster.
“In the lower ninth ward, a scientist at my university told me, it was a wall of water 18 feet high moving at five feet a second down the street. In the article I wrote about my own neighborhood, there was this couple in their thirties. There was so little damage they took the dog out for a walk, and they saw what they thought was fog coming toward them.
“And they suddenly realized it was water.
“They were a block from their house. By the time they got back to their door, it was up to their waists. Their house was raised, they got up into it, and the man said by the time he had his hand pulling up out of the attic stairs, the water was up to their throats. The water kept coming, so he kicked a vent loose.”
“The water must have come up in some places, eight feet in 10 minutes. So if you’re old or crippled or make the wrong decision, turn the wrong way in the hall, you die. By noon the next day it’s 140 degrees in that attic,” he said.
“And you think, the government must be coming. But the United States didn’t show up til Thursday, Friday.
“That’s what my play is about, the night after the hurricane has passed. Everyone falls into exhausted sleep because there is no power or lights, and nobody knows the levees have given way.
“But to use that to get at aspects of being a human being that other circumstances don’t allow.”
The hard thing about writing the play, he said, was forgetting all he had learned since that night and imagining he had been in that attic with his wife.
“I thought maybe two people in an attic would be a small enough canvass that I could find some way of fabricating the form of this kind of story,” he said.
“For we have no models for this narrative in our history, in this country. We’d never lost a city before, a thousand citizens hadn’t died in a self-made disaster before.”
This play is the first of a planned trilogy. The second, Shotgun is almost finished. It’s set four or five months later and involves no common characters. It’s about a white man and his teenage son who have lost their house, and rent one side of a shotgun duplex. The other half is owned by an African-American woman, whose father has lost his house in the lower ninth ward and who also has moved in.
The third will be called Mold, and set another four or five months later. It’s still a work in progress, but this much he can say — at the end of the first act the central character begins to smell mold in the walls. In the second act he tears his house apart again.
He has years of work ahead, but he thinks the story of New Orleans is really just beginning.
“This is the place where America’s future arrived first. All the failures to deal with the infrastructure. All the lingering racial problems, the crime. Our murder rate, last time I heard was 12 times the rate of New York. The unequal distribution of wealth. Poverty New Orleans had twice the national poverty average before the flood hit.
“So we had all the problems that had been festering in this country, and they just showed up in New Orleans first.
“The more I’m writing about New Orleans, the more I’m writing about the United States.”