There is a calm before any storm.
The hurricane of human turmoil, and the whirlwind of hope that remains afterwards, is the story of Clementine in the Lower 9.
The profound, emotionally charged production of Clementine in the Lower 9 by Forum Theatre, and directed by Derek Goldman, is a flair to the senses, a shock to the system, and an artistic force to be reckoned with. It takes a hold of you and doesn’t let go. The documentary, you-are-there feeling of this organic experience leaves a lasting trail of truth, honesty, and insightful, creative vision.
Playwright Dan Dietz’s new play about determination and power of the human spirit is spellbinding, an illuminating important work of art. A landscape of existential realism, Dietz’s idiom of colorful imagery, music weaving, and audacious humane form is visceral, poetic theater. I applaud the well-balanced, strongly written multidimensional characters he has created, and the musicality, of the rhythmic mix of blues and dialogue. That winning combination is the gift that keeps on giving.
The ambition of Forum Theatre has never been more fully realized than it is with Clementine in the Lower 9. Fascinating in its attention to detail, challenging storytelling, and the commitment to authenticity of the human condition, this is great theater for anyone who has a pulse. I will not soon forget this fresh, visually arresting production that pierces the soul, bebop’s your intuition, and rocks your altruistic spirit.
August 2005. Hurricane Katrina was the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded to make landfall in the U.S. The storm surge from Katrina was 20 fee-feet high, and in New Orleans, the levees were designed for a Category 3 hurricane, but with winds up to 175 miles per hour, Katrina peaked at Category 5. The devastation of Katrina caused 81 billion in property damage, but the total economic impact, still being tallied, may exceed 150 billion.
Hurricane Katrina. The power of those two words will forever be etched in our hearts. The visual horrors of all that witnessed it (most of us by our television sets) strike pained memories, but it also a united a wide sense of community.
The riveting, controlled direction of Derek Goldman offers an unflinching look at incalculable human heartbreak, the power of love, and the gift of hope in Clementine of the Lower 9. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the classic tragedy of Greek mythology, is an inspiration source for the production, but Goldman never losses sight or focus on the modern storytelling of the human condition.
Mythic overtones open the show with the Scott Patterson (Chorus) telling why the Greek gods came to the crescent shaped city, of New Orleans. (For it’s wonderful jazz and blues, food, and Cajun culture, of course). The figure of Apollo looms. Set in the New Orleans, Lower 9 neighborhood ruins of post-Hurricane Katrina, the audience is introduced to of the ravage, dilapidated home of former hospital nurse and once musical prodigy, Clementine (Caroline Stephanie Clay), and her son Reginald (Thony Mena) who has just returned from college in New York.
This is a tale of one family’s survival through a tragic time. The house is shattered, remnants of household items, lamps with shades, a bare mattress is strewn about in what remains the house interior and the yard. There is a wall that’s still standing (barely) covered with picture frames of family photos. (Why all those hanging frames – “because that’s what makes a house a home,” says Clementine). And then, there is that huge, gaping hole in the roof of the house that is a visual focal point of the environmental staging by Scenic Designer Lisi Stoessel. I am reminded of the many pictures seen of post-Katrina, and there is a persistent sense with this set of the horrible, rough living conditions that existed in 2005.
Stoessel and Props Master George-Edward Burgtorf have done an admirable job with arrange all of the many pieces of mismatched and fragmented debris and attention to detail to filling the oversized stage space in a very real, lived-in/ make-do kind of way. Kudos to Lighting Designer Andrew F. Griffin for creating the dreamy, very starry, night.
Continuing with the Greek tragedy motif, where there is pleasure, there is pain.
Clementine and her family have been scattered because of Hurricane Katrina, as it did many. Her youngest child is gone, and for nine months her husband, Jaffy (Jeff Allin) has been living in Houston. Now it’s time for his return, time to be reunited, and to rebuild their home, and their family. When he arrives, he’s not alone; with him is Cassy (Michelle Graves), a mysterious, 15-year-old drug addict whom he claims has a supernatural gift. Is she a prophet? Or, is she a gifted con? Jaffy says that she can predict what is to come.
The explosive journey into the answers digs deep at the family’s quest for survival. It’s a test of love, rage, and passion of mythic proportions.
Caroline Stephanie Clay’s performance as Clementine is fantastic. In a scintillating, breakout performance, it is the bold choices made by Caroline Stephanie Clay in sculpting her character that are integral to the fortitude, maternal depth, and conviction that Clementine exquisitely embodies. You can see with Clay that there is a determination, and preciseness to detail, to get it right. Still, there is such a freedom of expression, an instinctive authenticity to her portrayal. You feel her agony, you share her dreams, and you are inspired by her courage of hope. Clay is an experienced Broadway and theater actor, but her performance in this lead role is indeed a defining moment. Casting directors around town please take notice of this God-gift-of-something-special talent. We need to see more of her in DC Theatre!
You don’t know a man’s life until you have walked in his shoes. The walk and stride of Jaffy (Jeff Allin) reveals so much about his character as soon as he steps foot on stage. Jaffy, the recovering addict, jazz musician husband of Clementine, has a certain rhythm to his body language and his vocal delivery; but, there is a sly, unpredictability to his character. Hesitation, or even an initial distrust of the likeability of Jaffy’s character is not outside the realm of possibility. As an audience member, I accept him because Clementine loves him. The challenge Allin has, is to access Jaffy’s humanity and to finesse his good intentions effectively and make him trustworthy and sympathetic. No easy feat, but I think he succeeds.
The trumpet is such a prominent motivational source in the play, that I would have enjoyed the direction of seeing Allin playing for longer, extensive, instrumental moments than what is presently in the show. The trumpet is carried around, talked about, and its musical play by Jaffy is a highlight one looks forward. The audience deserves to hear more from Jaffy in a show filled with musical blues. Right now, the limited play is somewhat of a tease.
The graceful skill of Michelle Graves as Cassy is a haunting and dynamic centerpiece to connecting to the gravity of the story. Although she is mute in most of her performance, Graves has built a fully realized, three-dimensional character with curious, and self-aware reactions from her internal dialogue. The shrunken physicality of her character, her adroit facial expressions, the child-like way she reaches out to grab a hand, not only creates a defined human being, but one that you are curious and care about.
Don’t you love it when you can tell can tell an actor really enjoys his work? I know I do. And, there is such joy to Thony Mena’s (Reginald) acting that makes me smile. He has a wide range of emotional territory that he has to cover in Clementine in the Lower 9, and Mena’s choices are clear, fully committed, and well-executed.
If the actors are the heart and soul . . . then, there’s the blues. 2010 Grammy Award-winning composer Justin Ellington and Music Director Scott Patterson (Chorus) have mastered a symbiotic musical component in Clementine in the Lower 9 that not only makes this makes this production “special – it’s the X factor. Their embellished, lively interwoven mix – a balance of moody, blues and lyrical narration- is a rich, Cajun-flavored tapestry of soulful musical phrasing and poignant anecdotes. Ellington’s original music composition is standout on its own merit. And whether he’s playing the piano, dancing a toe-tappin’ side sway, or singing a refrain of “Good Goddamn Love,” Patterson is as entertaining as he is informative with his mythological introductions and transition narration.
There are the Greek gods, and then there is the Almighty. But you don’t have to have religion or understand Greek mythology to be affected and inspired by this transformative, multi-faceted tales of resurrection, resilience and strength.
If you are an audience member who likes to attend theater for an escape and amazing performances, or if you want to feel the passion of being transformed into another time and place for a rare, open-yourself- to-the-possibility of theater experience, then you cannot afford to miss this show.
Clementine in the Lower 9 is a crowning, spectacular achievement, and makes a riveting, heartbreaking statement that is likely to resonate long after one leaves the theater.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Clementine in the Lower 9 plays through June 15, 2013 at Forum Theatre at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.