What happens when a bunch of NYU theatre students from all over the United States decide to move to post-Katrina New Orleans after graduation? For starters, you get wide eyes and fresh perspectives on this time-honored place and all it has to offer. You get thought-provoking, electric theatrical productions that utilize not just four walls and a stage, but so many of the unexpected pockets of our great city. You get community partnerships that transcend the performing arts scene. Most importantly, you get one of the most dynamic theatre companies this town has ever seen.
While studying at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Andrew Larimer, a New Orleans native and The NOLA Project's original artistic director, called upon his fellow classmates and friends to assemble a theatre with the highest dramatic standards, and one that would contribute to the artistic renaissance that was to take place in New Orleans following the greatest devastation the city had experienced in modern times. In the seven short years since its fi rst production, The NOLA Project has grown to a strong twentyone-member troupe of actors, playwrights, and directors, incorporated itself as a 501 (C) 3, enlisted a Board of Directors, developed an educational outreach program, single-handedly brought Shakespeare back to City Park, and produced/co-produced over thirty compelling, award-winning works of theatre ranging from drama to comedy, musicals to one-man shows, even children's plays and original pieces created by the company's own members.
Of its original plays, The NOLA Project has produced three about New Orleans, which have all proven very timely: Get This Lake Off My House (2005) by Andrew Larimer, Taste (2009) by Gabrielle Reisman, and now Catch the Wall, also by Reisman, who received the 2012 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival's Rosa Parks Award for Catch the Wall. "We've seen characters go from sitting on rooftops to making dinner in a Bywater kitchen with a recycled blue-tarp covering a 'we'll-getto-that-eventually' collapsed wall, and now to a school and neighborhood in which the hurricane is rarely even mentioned but whose effects are apparent in everything," says A.J. Allegra, Artistic Director of The NOLA Project. "I personally tired of Katrina as the main dramatic narrative for the city. We wanted a play that addressed the simultaneous joy and frustration of living in modern day New Orleans."
Catch the Wall, The NOLA Project's newest and most ambitious original production to date, uses Katrina as the starting point for this tale of loss, hope, and triumph for the play's characters and for our city. It tells the story of Cleo and Justice, two sixth graders who set out to make a dance video in honor of their recently murdered mentor and friend, champion bounce emcee, Benefi t. Their struggles to capture the memory of their hero are paralleled by their young, newly-transplanted Teach for America teachers who are trying to fi gure out their own identities as educators and adults. When Benefi t's ghost begins possessing their teachers, Cleo and Justice must fi ght back against their charter school's expectations and the dangers of their neighborhood to fi nd a story that is all their own.
Reisman knows a thing or two about the challenges of New Orleans' public school system, having worked for several years as a teaching artist through KIDsmART right after hurricane Katrina, a time when many public charter schools were still getting their bearings. "I was so struck by the cultural gulf between my students and their non-New Orleanian teachers, myself included. Their relationships were complicated by so many factors, the strongest of all being the intense pressure being placed on educators to immediately raise test scores, in large part by crafting a strict school culture that in some ways seemed to devalue the culture and interests of the students." This confl ict is the central force behind Catch the Wall, with bounce music as the soundtrack to the characters' lives.
Having seen the integral role bounce music played in the lives of her students, Reisman began writing Catch the Wall in 2011, right after Magnolia Shorty and Messy Mya were killed. "Apart from the education reform, the play looks at the way we live with violence in New Orleans and how bounce has become incorporated in the ways we mourn those who've passed," she says. "That blending of bounce—that nearly all tracks are borrowed and layered bits from other songs—feels so New Orleanian to me. One of the strongest things about this city is our culture of sharing, of lending whatever you have to your neighbors. This runs up against the standardized testing ethos, which is very much about the success of the individual." Reisman attempts to reconcile these two worlds in Catch the Wall.
Last summer, Catch the Wall workshopped at the Contemporary Arts Center to glowing reviews. Audiences were able to give their input during talk-back sessions after each show with Reisman, the cast, and director Chris Kamenstein of Goat in the Road Productions and The New Movement. In March, The NOLA Project will debut a full-scale production of Catch the Wall at Dillard University's Cook Theatre, with Reisman and Kamenstein back at the helm and much of the same cast as the workshop production.
As both a young theatre company as well as a nonprofi t, The NOLA Project relies on additional fundraising endeavors outside of just show ticket sales. In the spirit of Catch the Wall's bounce theme, The NOLA Project is hosting its Gobblen-Wobble Fundraiser on Saturday, March 2nd .
This two-part event will start at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center with a soul food dinner featuring some of the city's best restaurants, plus a sneak preview of the play. After dinner, guests will second line down Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard to the brand new Dryades Theatre for a bounce bash dance party featuring entertainment by infamous local emcees Cheeky Blakk and Katey Red. Unlimited specialty drinks provided by Cordina Mar-Go-Ritas and Tito's Vodka at both events. Proceeds from the Gobble-n-Wobble Fundraiser go directly toward production costs for Catch the Wall.
Catch the Wall March 14-17 & 21-24; 8 pm Dillard University Cook Theatre; 2601 Gentilly Blvd.
Gobble-n-Wobble Fundraiser Saturday, March 2 ; 7:30 pm - 9 pm: Soul Food Feast Ashe Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. 9:00 pm - midnight: Bounce Bash Dance Party Ft. Cheeky Blakk and Katey Red Dryades Theatre, 1232 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
To learn more about The NOLA Project, Catch the Wall, and the Bounce Bash Prom and to purchase tickets, visit nolaproject.com.