“The Man Who Saved New Orleans” is the latest play at eta Creative Arts Foundation. Written by Thomas Meloncon, it returns the narrative of New Orleans to the people who were kicked out of the city when Katrina moved in. It tells the story of the Prejeans, an African American family from the Lower 9th Ward who have been relocated to the Houston home of an evangelical cousin. A blind grandfather, a broken mother, a tormented son, and a silent daughter populate the cast list of the family drama that unfolds over two lengthy acts. A host of supporting characters, most notably a snarky, seductive fellow refugee named Eva (played by Ina Houston), add commentary but little complexity to the Prejeans’ struggles.
Each of the characters attempts to deal with the pain instilled by Katrina and its aftermath while grappling with immediate domestic trauma. Heartbreak, addiction, death, redemption–it’s all here. Arthur Prejean (Foster Williams, doing his best Ray Charles impression), the family patriarch, tries to hold everyone together by spouting mystical wisdom handed down from his black Indian ancestors, but his words are not enough. So Vincent Bourdeaux (Reginald Jackson), the inhospitable cousin, imposes his rigid Christian faith on the family, once again to no avail. Eva blames her family’s problems on white people, and the family joins her in finding a scapegoat.
And then things fall apart. Willie Jean (Nicole Black), Arthur’s daughter and caretaker, can no longer bear to see everyone else suffer, much less Johnny Boy (Randle Michael), her wayward teenage son, as he torments himself over the tragedies that unfolded in the wake of the storm. And Hattie (Chloe Johnson), the youngest of the family, resigns herself to silence. At first, each family conflict provokes characters and spectators alike to take sides. As characters scream and storm out, or crumble in pain, the audience is left to decide who is justified in their outbursts.
In the midst of the familiy turmoil, the play finally manages to establish a solid foundation for itself. All of the Prejean’s quarrels have run their course, and the family is finally left in a state of complete dejection. Should they turn to God or against their enemies? As discussions turn into arguments and points of view devolve into dogmas, an overwhelming sense of despair permeates the atmosphere of the play. No one is completely in the right; everyone is searching for the most convenient solution. The open set invites the audience to participate in the dialogue of the Prejeans, and director Artisia Green’s loose staging adds a heightened naturalism to the acting.
Unfortunately, the play wraps up this whirlwind of conflict too neatly. The title is an overt reference to Johnny Boy’s nickname, “New Orleans,” and his grandfather predictably pulls him out of his despondency and returns him to righteousness. Meloncon leaves questions of faith and family hanging, preferring to mop up most of the confusion with easy resolutions.
Still, the play leaves the audience with a lingering intuition that the Prejeans aren’t quite through the storm yet. The hope that the play ironically inspires is that their confusion will return, and that the family will continue to probe the confounding facts and motivations that surround their tragedy. They have yet to return to New Orleans to reclaim their city.
eta Creative Arts Foundation Main Stage Theater. eta Square, 7558 S. South Chicago Avenue. April 22-June 13. Thursday-Saturday, 8 pm, Sunday, 3 pm & 7pm. (773) 752-3955. $30 ($15 for students). etacreativearts.org