Tucked into the News Brief section of this month's Architectural Record (with slightly-expanded content in the online brief here), is mention of free, outdoor stagings of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in two of New Orleans's most devestated neighborhoods: the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans is a project by Paul Chan (with director Chris McElroen) who states, “The longing for the new is a reminder of what is worth renewing. Seeing Godot embedded in the very fabric of the landscape of New Orleans was my way of re-imagining the empty roads, the debris, and, above all, the bleak silence as more than the expression of mere collapse. There is a terrible symmetry between the reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for tomorrow.”
The first three lines of the play.
Godot -- what Simon Callow calls "the most influential play of the second half of the 20th century" -- is one of the few plays I've seen in person, in a theater on Chicago's northwest side last year. The small stage was extremely sparse in its decor (from what I recall, a tree, a rope, and a box against black curtain with equally minimal lighting), as Estragon and Vladimir wait for Godot, who, naturally, never arrives. Sure Pozzo and his servant Lucky arrive on the scene, but alas no Godot. And of course in this is the relationship between Beckett's play and New Orleans: waiting for something or someone that never arrives, be it a mysterious stranger with a gray beard or aid for rebuilding.
What makes Chan's staging special, of course, is its location, outdoors and in situ, where the sparseness and silence are endemic of the situation rather than a manipulation of a theatrical space.
To say the performance is a great idea would definitely be accurate, though at the same time focusing too much on the medium rather than the message. The act of staging the play in a location suffering from neglect, though not short on hope, points out the shortcomings of the federal government in the rebuilding, the racial inequity present in a wonderfully diverse place, and the effects of Western civilization's ways on the planet, among most likely numerous other intentions and interpretations.