What could be the definitive Hurricane Katrina play already has been written and, in fact, was announced in The Times-Picayune three months before the storm hit, as part of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society's (JPAS) 2005-06 theater season.
The play is "Pink Collar Crime" by New Orleans actress-playwright Yvette Sirker, Cornell University, a Class of '84 graduate who majored in English with a concentration in creative writing and went on to get a master's degree in acting from New York University (NYU). She wrote the first draft in 2003-04 and produced a staged reading that year by her Zhoux Zhoux Theater at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. As a result of feedback from that work-in-progress presentation, she was able to write a second draft with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Arts Council of New Orleans. The play is exciting on the page, and its impact on the stage is likely to be powerful. If JPAS, which suffered serious damage to its theaters from Hurricane Katrina, is able to partner with a major theater or a university theater, New Orleans could have a significant theater event on its hands.
How did she come to write the play before the fact? Sirker, who was born in New Orleans, is not clairvoyant, just smart and environmentally aware. She already had written "Troubled Waters," a play about the catastrophic 1927 Mississippi River flood, which was produced at Dillard University five years ago.
"I thought I had told that story and put it away," Sirker said. "But in doing that play, I started to become obsessed with our vanishing wetlands, the state of our levees, the absurd refusal to acknowledge global warming and how big business and corrupt politics have left New Orleans vulnerable to a major storm. People have been writing cautionary pieces and making TV documentaries on this subject, and the question never was 'if' but 'when.'"
In the first act of Sirker's "Pink Collar Crime" a hurricane dubbed "Ivan the Terrible" misses New Orleans but causes devastation elsewhere. There is a feeling that the city is protected somehow from hurricanes, and the peripheral breezes of destruction are romanticized with the line "I love hurricane weather." However, in the second act, which takes place a year later, a Category 5 hurricane makes a beeline for the city.
In Sirker's first two drafts, the killer hurricane was fictional. As Hurricane Katrina approached, Sirker evacuated New Orleans for her sister's home in Austin, Texas, and sat down to write her third draft "with CNN going on behind me, and as I got angrier the play got angrier and, of course, more specific."
"Pink Collar Crime" has strong female roles and doesn't pull any punches. Sirker, who is of Nicaraguan and East Indian descent, populated it with interlaced characters representing a cross-section of New Orleanians. Key players are: Purl, a Latin American environmental biologist, who says, "Destroy a single flag? Mass hysteria. Destroy our drinking water? The air we breathe? The Earth, our protection from the wrath of Mother Nature? Look away, Dixieland!"
Enjean, Purl's cousin, a disillusioned black lawyer who knows the cracks in her walls mean her house and neighborhood are sinking but loves the city, because, "We always end up back in New Orleans, like some long-ass umbilical cord pulling you back into the hot, sweaty womb."
And family friend Penny Moon, a white lawyer, is mortified that her father is the CEO of an oil company that is a monument to corporate greed and one of the first involved in the destruction of the protective wetlands.
Following Sirker's studies at Cornell and NYU, she was employed in the New Orleans public school system's Talent in Art program. Today, however, she is without a job or benefits. "I will never turn my back on New Orleans," said Sirker, "but right now I am unemployed, with no source of income. My house has been declared unfit to inhabit and my plans are indefinite."
Word of "Pink Collar Crime" is making its way in theater circles, however. "Four regional theaters are reading it now," she said, including a major venue, and theaters in Austin are interested in working with her. But the play will premiere somewhere in New Orleans in May 2006 -- the start of the next hurricane season, she said. "All the theaters are either destroyed or seriously damaged," she said. "So we don't know where it will go up, but it's going up."
If Sirker's play is any indication of what is to come, new theater work in New Orleans -- because of what and where the city is -- will be like no other.
This story is adapted from an article by theater writer David Cuthbert at The Times-Picayune Oct. 19, 2005, and is used with permission of the writer, publisher and subject.