The River in Reverse

Sunday I went to see Blood Dazzler at Harlem Stage.  It had a four-day run at the Gatehouse, which is a lovely space but which is also a small-small space, so not nearly enough people have seen this performance.  If you hear that this show is playing somewhere near you, go.  Don’t think twice.  Just go.

Patricia and Paloma McGregor have taken Patricia Smith’s amazing embodiment poems about Hurricane Katrina and turned them into a spoken word / dance / music / video / through-your-gut performance.  It’s about the thirty-four residents of St. Rita’s nursing home in St. Bernard Parish who drowned in their home  on August 29th, who could have been moved to safety the day before the storm hit if  the owners of the home had chosen to follow the evacuation order.  It shows us Katrina in the body of an angry, vengeful beauty, dancing her destruction across the city, demanding recognition of her glorious strength.

It’s painful and powerful and beautifully done.

I wanted to go but waited until the last possible moment to buy my ticket, hoping it would sell out.  Yes.  Because I knew how much it would upset me.  I know how powerfully I over-identify with pain, with murder, with terror.  In the same way I over-identified with Bishop Gerardi, I know that anything related to Katrina is going to destroy me.  I sent for my copy of Teaching the Levees, a curriculum that was developed for Spike Lee’s film … but I can’t use it because I can’t make myself watch the film.  I make it through the first moments, and my chest is so tight, I have to switch it off.  I bought Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge, thinking maybe I could handle the storm in cartoon form.  Wrong again.

And when Blood Dazzler started, I felt my chest constricting, felt the wave of desperate “Get out!!” swelling in my lungs.  But I stayed.

Unlike with Bishop Gerardi, my identification with Katrina is closer to home.  I have family in Louisiana, have friends in and around New Orleans.  Those latter were all young enough, able enough, with means enough to get out of town before the storm landed.  My New Orleans family — a branch from which my tiny nuclear cell has long been estranged — in 2005 that family would have been quite old.  Watching Blood Dazzler I felt myself praying that they had all passed before Katrina came.  I couldn’t bear the image of them left in nursing homes to drown in their beds, left to die in wheelchairs on the street, injected with drugs to kill them as their so-called caregivers fled.

I’ve never been able to write anything about Katrina.  (“Don’t you know my name?” she demands of those who thought she was an ordinary storm.)  This is pain I don’t seem able to articulate, pain I’m too afraid to touch.  The simple fact that I prayed my family was already dead is a sure indicator of how ugly this is inside me.  Why not wish they had evacuated?  Why not wish that, if they tried to shelter in place, they somehow survived — shipped to Texas or Utah or somewhere equally foreign until they could return home?

Even trying to write this — and I’ve said next to nothing — I have had to pause again and again, my breath coming shorter, my eyes welling.

As I write, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint play The River in Reverse in my ears.

Wake me up!
Wake me up with a slap or a kiss.
There must be something better than this.
‘Cause I don’t see how it can get much worse.
What do we have to do
to send the river in reverse?

I didn’t cry.  That surprised me.  There were many places when I thought I would, starting with that opening sequence and ending with the walk-off after the standing ovation, a second-line-style musical moment that charmed, amused and placated uplifted the row of ladies behind me, but which I found utterly wrenching.

I still can’t fathom, can’t process the truth of Katrina.  And I’m not suddenly going to be able to do it here after five years of not allowing myself to remove the bandage and get some air on the wound.  But maybe seeing Blood Dazzler has opened a door.  Maybe I’ll finally find a way to start looking at what the fact of Katrina does inside me, why even typing this post has made me cry.  I still won’t be able to fathom the truth of this tragedy, but maybe I’ll be able to talk, maybe I’ll finally be able to facilitate a discussion in my classroom that won’t leave me mummering in a corner.  Wake me up, indeed.  Patricia Smith and the McGregor sisters may have done exactly that.

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4 thoughts on “The River in Reverse

  1. Courageous woman. I just discovered Patricia Smith this week and I was floored. I heard her read Thursday night (she was reading at a Legend’s Night alongside Willie Perdomo for a reading series called The Inspired Word) and I absolutely love what she did. She read this amazing persona poem in the voice of her parents at the beginning of their relationship. Just amazing. And I heard mentions of Blood Dazzler throughout the week but unfortunately didn’t make it to Harlem Stage.

    1. Hi, Glendaliz! How lucky that you got to go to the Legends reading! I was at work finishing a grant proposal, or I’d have been there. Her poems are amazing. She is the reader in the show, also, which is a wonderful addition to the performance.

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